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Changing of the Guard

As Prince William and Catherine Middleton gear up for their wedding, they are bringing a decidedly more open attitude to their roles.

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LONDON — He collects a regular paycheck from the Royal Air Force and commands an annual salary of about 40,000 pounds, or $64,000. She shops at Bicester Village, the designer outlet, and trawls the sales at Peter Jones, the London department store beloved of middle-class England. They fell for each other at university, dated for years, and now live together in a rented cottage costing 750 pounds, or $1,215, a month in north Wales, near the RAF base. Their wedding will be huge and watched by almost 1 billion people worldwide, although they’ve told the 1,900 guests they prefer charity donations to gifts. After a brief honeymoon in Britain, they’ll return to their quiet village life in Wales — and, please, no servants.

So is this what it means to be 21st-century royalty?

Much has been made of the modern, approachable, and inclusive attitudes of Prince William and his fiancée Kate Middleton. They appear to have the common touch, and then some. They’ve invited the butcher, pub owner and postman from Kate’s hometown to the wedding, while snubbing the Obamas, the Sarkozys and even Sarah Ferguson. Although the 1,900 guests and global TV audience won’t exactly make for an intimate wedding at Westminster Abbey, the list is down from the 3,500 people who attended the wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. William is even said to have defied courtiers’ pleas for a summer wedding and insisted on a short engagement. Apparently, the reasoning was that he and Kate had been together for so long, and because they didn’t want the public to get bored.

William and Kate get it. They’re aware that — readers of Hello! aside — people’s lives do not revolve around the Queen’s choice of hat for the big day or the royal honeymoon destination. “It’s no longer about awe and dignity. William and Kate are like us — yet so not like us,” says Peter York, the management consultant, broadcaster and co-author of “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.” York calls the couple modern, identifiable and mainstream, notwithstanding the round-the-clock security, castles scattered around the country and skiing holidays in Klosters. “They were university sweethearts. A lot of people could think, ‘That happened to me,’ or ‘That happened to my son or my daughter,’ ” he says.

The common touch isn’t any accident. One of the late Princess Diana’s great aspirations was to give her sons as normal an upbringing as possible. Her style was the opposite of the cold, Edwardian approach to child rearing that was the norm for previous generations of upper-class children — and one that she and Charles were all too familiar with. Diana took her boys to McDonald’s, to the Odeon cinema and to Selfridges to see Santa, where they queued with the hoi polloi.

Thanks in large part to Diana, Princes William and Harry are the first generation of heirs to the throne who have grown up with publicly affectionate parents. Even today, Prince Charles will put his arm around his sons, something that was unheard of when he was growing up. Royal watchers have long described the Queen and Prince Philip as distant, formal parents, as that was the parenting they themselves grew up with in the Edwardian era.

As a result, William and Kate could be seen as the first of Britain’s truly modern royals — relaxed, not stuffy; laughing and smiling in public and able to cope, up to a point, with the media intrusion that will now follow them wherever they roam.

“William lives in the real world,” says Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the Queen, broadcaster and journalist. “He had an outward-looking mother, he went to university and his job in the Royal Air Force involves rescuing people, saving lives.” He also points out that William has had a different bachelorhood than his father did. “He’s had Catherine as a girlfriend for the past eight years — that didn’t happen with Charles and Diana. Life is vastly different for all of us in the 21st century. It evolves, and we evolve with it,” he says.

Bruce Oldfield, who famously dressed Princess Diana and who is tipped to be designing Middleton’s wedding gown —or at the very least dressing some of the wedding party and guests — believes the entire Windsor clan has come a long way since the young Lady Diana Spencer swept down the aisle of St. Paul’s. “I hope — and I feel — there is a much more modern family in waiting for Kate. There has been lots of change over the past 30 years. The royals are much more relaxed, and they are marrying outside their class,” Oldfield says. Indeed, much has been made about Prince William marrying a commoner, although he’s certainly not the first of his family to do so. Princess Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles were not born royals, and neither was the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Princesses Margaret and Anne both married commoners, as did Princes Andrew and Edward.

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