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Ideas

The Prince And I: At St Andrews With William — Lessons In Politics And Bicycles

The author was at university with the future monarch, who was evidently an object of fascination for many on campus, and a seemingly decent person. Still, with the death of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension of King Charles, we should remember that Prince William is also the embodiment of something sinister.

photo of prince william smiling

Prince William at a polo match in 2003

Irene Caselli

-Essay-

I went to university with Prince William — to be more precise, the future King of England went to university with me.

I’d arrived at the University of St Andrews two years before William — so I can definitively not be accused of being one of the many girls my age from around the world who (at least, according to the British press) had applied for entry at St Andrews with the dream of becoming a real-life princess.

In the one year that our paths crossed on campus, I never had a veritable conversation with young William, but did bump into him several times — not uncommon in the medieval Scottish town where university life is concentrated around three main streets.

Naturally, memories of that time have returned in recent weeks, since the death of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, and the prince's rise to heir apparent to his father, King Charles.


Back 20-plus years ago, as a young, white middle-class Italian, I had never given much thought to the idea of living under a monarchy. When I first heard that William Wales (yes, royals don’t have surnames, but to attend university William used his dad’s designation) was moving to the small town where I lived, my first reaction was, well, empathy.

UK image

William had very publicly lost his mother, Princess Diana, only four years before he started at St Andrews. And how different, I thought, must attending university in this small town in Scotland be for a person like me and a guy like him? And frankly, on that front, I thought I had it better.

To me, the UK represented a mirage, a land of endless opportunities that I would not get access to anywhere else: I could perfect my English while studying for free and living by myself at the age of 17, far away from the chaos of my hometown, the southern Italian city of Naples.

It was 1998 when I applied for universities, the old-school way — sitting at the British Council’s library in Naples and looking at printed brochures of these possible futures that lay ahead of me. St Andrews caught my attention because it was the furthest away from my hometown, and because it was by the sea. I applied, and I got in.

I arrived without fully understanding the standing of the institution.
I arrived there without fully understanding the standing of the institution, the third oldest in the English-speaking world, after Oxford and Cambridge, and currently ranked as Britain’s best. I had no idea of this small town in the east coast of Scotland, where its population almost doubles during the academic year — with some 10,000 students taking over the streets and its dozens of pubs.

University of Saint Andrews St. Salvators Hall

Randolph Caughie/ZUMA Wire

Adjusting to life in Scotland

What attracted me was that EU students did not pay fees in Scotland. Also, the dorms were cheaper than average student rent in any Italian city where I would have likely moved to for university. And while I still would have not made it without my parents’ financial support, as soon as I landed in Scotland I understood that I could start working odd jobs to be able to pay for my newly acquired taste for warm ales and impromptu bus rides to Edinburgh and London.

The UK did seem like a land full of freedom and opportunities: nobody cared about what I wore and how I color-combinated my garments, quite a contrast to high school in Naples, which had felt like a constant fashion test that I would try to defy by dressing like a hippy.

I struggled so much with the language at the beginning that I also let go of my syndrome of being the top of the class, and that helped me approach studying in a different way. My friends were from all around the world — though except for the local Scottish students, most came from very privileged international backgrounds.

It took me some time to understand what was behind the glossy images that had formed in my head.

Socioeconomic distance

First there was the clear conflict between Scotland and England. Unlike us EU students, English students paid tuition fees and they were at St Andrews because they had not made it into Oxford or Cambridge. They wore light-pink shirts even for breakfast, and they all sounded the same — they called it the Queen’s English, my Scottish friends called them yahs, imitating their posh way of saying yes.

Then there were class differences. My Scottish friend reminded me that these were kids that did not need to work, their parents paid for everything, they had gone to private schools (which confusingly are called public schools in England).

While I thought I was miles away from Naples, all of a sudden I realized that conversations were often had about which school people had attended, and where their family came from — not unlike the oppressive small-town chats I had back home about the provenance of my school mates, with uncles asking whether my friends came from a buona famiglia (good family).

Paparazzi and tabloid reporters started showing up

So, when the university announced that Prince William had decided to enroll as an art history major in 2001, an environment of extreme privilege only got more extreme. There was also a 44% surge in applications, with a notable boost from young women from the United States.

The town was almost instantly transformed: rents went up, bunk beds were put in single dorm rooms, the clothing store Monsoon opened a shop on the high street, selling overpriced ball gowns and other clothes for formal occasions. Paparazzi and tabloid reporters started showing up, some even settling into rented flats in town.

The Refectory-University of Saint Andrews in Scotland.

Randolph Caughie/ZUMA Wire

The royal presence 

In William’s first year, I was away studying in Germany. William lived at St Salvator’s Hall, one of the more expensive student halls, where I spent my university years working as a waitress during lunch and dinner times. The Scottish women I worked with in the dining hall at Sallies (as it was known) told me that William seemed like a good lad — less arrogant than many others who were around.

It was in that same dining hall that William got to know Kate Middleton — she had also taken a gap year before starting university, the two were both studying art history and lived a few doors apart in the student hall. It was apparently Kate who encouraged William not to quit St Andrews, and to switch to studying geography in his second year.

By the time I was back for my final year, I went back to working at Sallies, but William had moved into a private flat with Kate, who was dating someone else, and another two friends. (They did not start dating until their fourth and final year, and had their picture taken together at the 2005 graduation ceremony in which they both wore the traditional red gowns, attended by Queen Elizabeth.)

Spotting him was never hard. He was tall, and usually followed by a column of girls — with dreams to become the next queen of England — who had learned his schedule by heart and shared the prince’s location via text messages. He also had two bodyguards around at all times, who tried to be discreet but were easy to recognize after a while.

Even though he asked friends to refer to him as Steve to avoid people overhearing gossip about him, and even though British media agreed not to publish paparazzi shots of William while at university, princely gossip was constant around town.

When I joined the women’s rugby team for a term at the end of 2002, all we heard at practice were stories of other girls in my team who had talked to “him” at Ma Bells, a posh bar I never went to.

My way of knowing his whereabouts was his parked bike, the only one in town that remained unlocked. One afternoon, after a “liquid lunch” of beers, I had to talk my tipsy Canadian and American friends out of trying to steal the bike.

While it began as a kind of “brush with celebrity” experience, I eventually realized that William — ultimately by little choice of his own — was the singular global symbol of inherited power and wealth that are in direct conflict with my own ideas about the world.

The University of Saint Andrews quad.

University of St Andrews

“Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”, says the anarcho-syndicalist peasant in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a milestone of British comedy that also wound up as part of my higher education, though not in the St Andrews brochures.

And so this week, the world got notice that a date in May has been chosen for the coronation of the new king, William’s father. My university memories and the Monty Python lads remind me again of how absurd the idea of a monarchy was to me in 2002, and again in 2022.

I was told my accent was not fit for broadcast.

Sure, in Naples, where I come from, there are a few still rooting for the House of Bourbon, the dynasty of French origin, which ruled the south of Italy all the up until the 19th century. (My mother was named Maria Sofia after Marie Sophie of Bayern, who was the last Queen of the Two Sicilies.)

But as the daughter of a Troskyist, with parents who were out in the streets in 1968, a functioning monarchy in the 21st century is a joke, at best, in direct opposition to the ideal of progress I had brought with me to the UK.

This grew only stronger when I entered another UK institution, the BBC, in 2006, as a radio and TV producer. A boyfriend of mine, from a half-Irish working-class family in Manchester, had to force a fake posh accent to make it through in the media. I was told my accent was not fit for broadcast, but so too were countless Scottish and Irish and northern English people before me.

Much of the UK’s wealth is inherited. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, inherited family wealth is the number one determinant of how wealthy a person will be later in life. A tiny minority of alumni of small expensive schools and Oxbridge still make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s top jobs (65% of senior judges, 57% of members of the House of Lords, 52% of Foreign Office diplomats, 43% of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, according to a study by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission).

With the death of Queen Elizabeth and passage of the crown to King Charles, I look back at my time at St Andrews and wonder whether I was wrong to stop my friends from stealing William’s bicycle. It was nothing personal, and indeed I walked away with the impression of both him and Kate as among the classier of the noble class on campus. It just so happens that I am opposed to everything that they represent.

Long live William. Death to the monarchy!

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