The first overseas trip by the Prince and Princess of Wales since the death of Queen Elizabeth II began Wednesday, an occasion to show the world as much about who they are not as who they are.
With their three-day visit to Boston, focused on Prince William’s initiative to find the environmental entrepreneurs of a new generation, supplemented with trips to an anti-poverty program, child development researchers and local flood defenses, the couple hope to demonstrate that they aren’t the last remnants of a dying institution. Instead, Americans will see the younger face of a monarchy that is tackling important issues as it seeks to remain relevant in modern, multicultural Britain.
The visit comes less than three months after the death of Elizabeth, whose personal popularity dampened criticism of the crown during her 70-year reign. King Charles III, William’s father, has made clear that his will be a slimmed-down monarchy, with less pomp and ceremony than its predecessors.
"I think this is less about saving the Earth and more about saving the royal family,’’ Boston University professor Arianne Chernock, an expert in modern British history, said. "To be honest, we’ve seen Charles as king and his first months in that position trying to feel his way, find his way towards being a more relevant, more modern monarch. And I think we see something similar happening with William and Kate.’’
Part of that reset involves reclaiming the hearts and minds of people in America, where William’s younger brother, Prince Harry, and sister-in-law, Meghan, have dominated the media since moving to California in 2020. Harry and Meghan have criticized the royal family for alleged racism and insensitive treatment and built their own media profile by making films and podcasts for Netflix and Spotify.
The Netflix series "The Crown" has also resurrected some of the more troubled times of the House of Windsor, including the collapse of Charles’ marriage to the late Princess Diana, William's mother, amid mutual allegations of infidelity.
But William and Kate are keen to tell a different story, about their work on environmental issues, mental health and early childhood education.
During a gala concert celebrating the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June, William delivered a speech highlighting his grandmother's and father’s pioneering work on the environment, as images of jungles and oceans were projected on the walls of Buckingham Palace behind him.
Kate last week wrote an opinion piece on the need to improve the lives of young children that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s most influential newspapers, alongside a photo of the princess sitting cross-legged among a group of elementary school students.
"Over the past 10 years, talking to a wide range of experts about how we deal with societal issues like poor mental and physical health, I have become more and more sure of one thing: If we are going to create a healthier and happier society for future generations, we must start by understanding and acknowledging the unique importance of the first five years of life," she wrote.
William and Kate’s last visit to the United States was in 2014, not long after their wedding. During that trip, the glamorous young couple were feted as they toured the eastern U.S.
Eight years later, now in their 40s and with three young children, the prince and princess are finally having a return engagement.
The choice of Boston, the birthplace of President John F. Kennedy, as their destination is symbolic. Kennedy’s 1962 speech setting out the goal of putting men on the moon by the end of that decade inspired William’s Earthshot Prize, aimed at finding solutions to climate change and other environmental problems by the end of this one.
The mission begins Wednesday, when William and Kate will meet with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and visit the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and Museum with the late president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy.
Later in the week, they will visit Roca Inc., highlighting the racial equity group’s efforts to improve the lives of young people by addressing issues such as poverty, incarceration and trauma from urban violence. They will also visit Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, a leader in research into the long-term impact of early childhood experiences.
But throughout the trip, William’s eye will be on the Earthshot Prize.
By focusing on the environment and climate change in particular, the royals are likely to strike a nerve in the U.S., where many people still deny the existence of human-made global warming, said author, social commentator and Washington Post contributor Sally Quinn. The ability of the royals to shine a light on the issue and fuse their fame with entertainers such as Billie Eilish, who is set to headline the awards show, is likely to make people pay attention.
If nothing else, it will put a face to the issue and make it more graspable than the technical presentations of scientists, Quinn said.
"Obviously the media and the attention will be good, not just because they’re celebrities and because they’re royals, but because they are serious people who care about issues," Quinn said. "I mean, they’re not frivolous. They’re not partygoers. They’re not out dancing on tables every night. They’re really hardworking royals, and they’re issues that they care about."
Earthshot offers 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in prize money to the winners of five separate categories: nature protection, clean air, ocean revival, waste elimination and climate change. The winners and all 15 finalists also receive help in expanding their projects to meet global demand.
The winners are set to be announced Friday at Boston’s MGM Music Hall as part of a glitzy show headlined by Eilish, Annie Lennox, Ellie Goulding and Chloe x Halle. The show will also feature videos narrated by naturalist David Attenborough and actor Cate Blanchett.
The BBC’s Clara Amfo and American actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim were selected as co-hosts. The prize presenters include actors Rami Malek, Catherine O’Hara and Shailene Woodley.
The ceremony is scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on the BBC in the U.K., PBS in the U.S. and Multichoice across Africa.
"We’re in this moment where there are lots of possibilities for how the royal family imagines itself going forward, and everyone really does feel that Kate and William are the future of this institution,’’ Chernock said. "And so we have to pay really careful attention to the ways, in the absence of Queen Elizabeth, that they present themselves to the public anew."