In this Nov. 16, 2010 file photo, Britain's Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton pose for the media at St. James's Palace in London, after they announced their engagement. Few people seem the least bit concerned that Prince William and Kate Middleton, set for the royal wedding on April 29, have been living together off and on since their university days. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
GREGORY KATZ, Associated Press
LONDON — The once hidebound royal family seems to have caught up with Britain's tolerant public in the three decades that separated Prince Charles' marriage to Diana Spencer from the wedding of their first born.
Few people — royal or otherwise — seem bothered by the fact that Prince William and his fiancee, Kate Middleton, have been living together off and on during the course of their eight-year romance, which began in university days.
That's a marked turnaround from the days preceding Charles and Diana's 1981 marriage. At that time, there was a general expectation that Diana would not have dated before her engagement to the heir to the throne, and her own uncle came out publicly to declare her a "bona fide" virgin.
The more modern approach gives many royal watchers hope that William, 28, and Middleton, 29, will fare better in their marriage than Charles and Diana, whose very public marital breakdown tarnished the image of the royal family.
William, said royal expert Dickie Arbiter, is "his own man."
"He's made his own space and he decides what he wants to do and when he wants to do it," Arbiter said. "The fact that William and (Kate) have had a relationship for eight years speaks for itself."
William's decision to live with his fiancee has been met, in general, with a shrug. The British public seems comfortable with the royal family having updated its unwritten behavior codes to bring them more in line with widely held social values.
"We live in a modern age and people do all sorts of things before they settle down," said Keith Morley, 34, an engineer from Birmingham. "It's probably best that they lived together before making a commitment."
Some historians say it's about time the royals shed their prudishness about the past of new entries into their family. When Charles and Diana wed, his history of dating was not an issue. Charles may well have wanted to marry girlfriend Camilla Shand, but she was not seen as an appropriate choice because she had had several previous boyfriends. She became Charles' second wife decades later.
Deborah Cohen, a historian at Northwestern University in Chicago who specializes in modern Britain, says the failure of Charles and Diana's marriage apparently convinced the royal family that its rigid standards were backfiring.
"After two decades of scandal, I think it's the royal family recognizing that to be normal is to their advantage," she said. "It's a canny refashioning of the image. There is no longer an investment in being anachronistic, or a public expectation that they ought to be harkening back to a different era of sexual politics."
Royal attitudes toward sexuality have never been based on fixed rules but rather unwritten conventions. The code of behavior has evolved — slowly — over the centuries as social values change. It is the monarch who sets the tone, so the views of Queen Elizabeth II have prevailed for nearly six decades.
Practical concerns, more than squeamishness about sex, were behind the royal family's historic concerns over the sexual status of a bride joining the royal family, Cohen said, because there were fears that a princess carrying another man's child could bring an illegitimate heir to the throne. This was particularly important before paternity testing.
By Diana's time, Cohen said, the issue had come to represent a yearning for lost innocence as Britain — with Europe's highest divorce rate — was gripped by a perceived social breakdown.
A spokesman for Prince William, who refused to be identified because of royal policy, said palace officials would not comment on whether attitudes have changed, preferring to leave that role to others.