Prince William, the monarchy's new hope
When Prince William walks his university sweetheart Kate Middleton down the aisle on Friday, it will be the next step for Princess Diana's eldest son on his journey to becoming king.
William has overcome the tragedy of his mother's death when he was 15 to become the great hope of the British royal family in the 21st century.
Opinion polls show a majority of the public want the 28-year-old second in line to the throne to leapfrog his father Prince Charles in the order of succession and take the throne after Queen Elizabeth II.
Such a move is highly unlikely, but it is a measure of William's popularity. Where Charles is stuffy, traditional and surrounded by staff, his eldest son has managed to lead a relatively normal life by royal standards.
"William cooks for himself, he makes his own bed. He behaves like a normal person and he seems to relish that," said royal author Penny Junor, who is writing a biography of the prince.
"He is a very good egg, a very straightforward guy. He is not particularly fussed about royal life. He would much prefer people to call him William, rather than your royal highness."
Born on June 21, 1982, less than a year after his parents' fateful wedding, William and his brother Harry enjoyed a childhood infused with their mother's sense of fun and a warmth that was lacking in their father's upbringing.
Determined that they should escape the rarefied atmosphere of the palace and have a glimpse of ordinary life, she took her sons to theme parks and made secret visits with the young princes to homeless shelters.
"William had a much more normal upbringing than his father," Junor told AFP. "His mother understood what it was to go to a cinema, a funfair or a restaurant and she would introduce him to her friends."
After their parents' marriage disintegrated, the princes then had to grieve for their mother in the full glare of publicity.
Unforgettably, the two boys, accompanied by their grandfather, father and Diana's brother Earl Spencer, walked behind their mother's coffin through the streets of London for the funeral in Westminster Abbey, where the wedding will take place.
Ironically, it was Diana's death as her car was chased by photographers though a Paris road tunnel in August 1997 that allowed William to grow up relatively undisturbed by Britain's voracious tabloid press.
His father struck a deal with newspaper editors under which William and Harry were left in peace in return for stage-managed photocalls, but William retains a wariness of the media to this day.
The prince was schooled at the elite Eton College and then spent a year off in Africa and trekking with the army in Belize, but it was a stint working on a dairy farm in southwest England that he enjoyed the most.
He enrolled at St Andrews University in Scotland, dubbed the Oxford of the North, where he met his bride-to-be, and they shared a house together. They split up briefly in 2007, but were soon reconciled.
Perhaps mindful of his position in the line of succession, William has avoided the controversies that have occasionally ensnared his brother.
When Harry attended a fancy dress party in 2005 wearing a now infamous Nazi costume, William was dressed inoffensively as a lion.
Andrew Morton, the author who revealed the full extent of Diana's unhappiness in his 1992 book "Diana: Her True Story", said palace officials told him that William knows his own mind.
"One of the big problems dealing with William is how to say no to him. He has seen that the royal family have made mistakes in the past, but he thinks his judgment is the best judgment," Morton said.
"And by and large, he has been pretty much on the ball."
By joining the military, William has followed a well-trodden royal path, training at the Sandhurst officers' school before opting for a career as a Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter pilot.
The royal family has slowly increased his public duties and last year he embarked on his first official overseas tour, to Australia and New Zealand, receiving a warm welcome when he returned to both countries this year.
Public relations expert Max Clifford said the British public had already warmed to William and his future wife.
"People see him as his mother's son. So all the Diana fans are his fans," he told AFP.
© 2011 AFP