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Kate Middleton, Prince William
Kirsty Wigglesworth  /  AP
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.
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updated 4/8/2011 8:12:41 AM ET 2011-04-08T12:12:41

In 1981, Princess Diana's uncle made a public statement before her royal wedding to clear up The Question: Yes, she was a virgin.

What a difference a generation makes.

Today, few people seem the least bit concerned that Prince William and Kate Middleton, set to wed this month, have been living together off and on since their university days.

"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."

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Some historians say it's about time the royals shed the prudishness they exhibited at the time of Diana's marriage, which came years after the pill and the Summer of Love made casual sex more socially acceptable even in traditionally uptight Britain.

The modern-day tolerance of William and Middleton's living arrangements, many say, just brings the House of Windsor in line with the times. Part of the change may have to do with the very public infidelities that played out in the disastrous marriage of Charles and Diana, which rocked the royal family to its core.

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"After two decades of scandal, I think it's the royal family recognizing that to be normal is to their advantage," said Deborah Cohen, a historian at Northwestern University in Chicago who specializes in modern Britain.

"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."

Princess Diana Prince Charles
RON BELL  /  AP
In this Feb. 24, 1981 file photo Britain's Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer pose following the announcement of their engagement.

At the time of Diana's engagement, the royal family and its advisers expected that she be a virgin, sparking dozens of speculative newspaper stories. It all prompted her late uncle, Lord Fermoy, to pronounce publicly that she was a "bona fide" virgin.

The issue of Diana's virginity wasn't based on a fixed rule but was part of a set of unwritten conventions governing royal life, a code of behavior that 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 virginity of a prospective bride, Cohen said. There were fears that a princess could be carrying another man's child, bringing an illegitimate heir to the throne. This was particularly important before paternity testing provided a scientific way to determine a child's biological father.

By Diana's time, Cohen said, the issue of virginity had come to represent a yearning for lost innocence as Britain was gripped by a perceived social breakdown driven home by its unwanted status of having Europe's highest divorce rate.

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"What began as a concern about legitimacy acquired all sort of connotations tied to social purity," Cohen said. "Diana's virginity became symbolic of the possibility of a return to an innocent past for everyone, and now we're so past that, it's laughable."

In effect, that liberates the new royal couple to live their own lives without carrying such a heavy weight of society's expectations.

They are not expected to adhere to an ideal that fell out of fashion several generations ago, long before Middleton sauntered down a charity fashion show runway wearing a transparent dress over black lingerie, producing photos that seem destined to live forever on the Internet.

In Diana's day, the risque photos of a likely future queen might have torpedoed any wedding plans. Now they raise a few eyebrows, but nothing more.

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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.

Middleton's age also offers a partial explanation for the different attitudes toward the two royal brides. She is 29; Diana was just 19 when her engagement to Charles was announced after a brief courtship. There was a general expectation that the young nursery school teacher would not have had any lovers before Charles.

"There is no rule that the royal bride has to be a virgin, and there never has been," said Noel Cox, a law professor and royal scholar at Aberystwyth University in Wales. "Obviously it would present difficulties if the heir chose someone who was notoriously promiscuous — that would be unpopular — but they could do that if they wanted to."

Diana's virginity wasn't a defined issue, experts say, but the absence of prior boyfriends with embarrassing tales to tell was a big plus from the royals' point of view.

Video: Where will William and Kate honeymoon? (on this page)

At the time of her engagement, Charles — 12 years older than Diana — was already in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Camilla Shand, who decades later would become his second wife. He had dated many young women in Europe, and under society's double standards no one expected him to be a virgin.

Charles may well have wanted to marry Camilla, but she was not seen as an appropriate choice because she was known to have had several boyfriends by that time.

Some historians and commentators believe this was a major factor in Charles' fateful decision to marry Diana rather than Camilla, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that culminated with Diana's 1997 death in a car crash.

Royal commentators believe William is in a better position than his father to make his marriage work.

"He's his own man," said royal expert Dickie Arbiter. "He's made his own space and he decides what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. The fact that William and (Kate) have had a relationship for eight years speaks for itself."

___

Associated Press Writer Aaron Edwards contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Kate Middleton’s spot-on princess style

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  1. Princess style

    On the left, Princess Diana wore an elegant pink gown to the opera in Milan in 1985. Kate Middleton chose the same color halter dress for a Starlight Children's Foundation event in 2008.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Jayne Fincher/Getty; Davidson/O'Neill/Rex via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Whimsical hats

    Princess Anne of England matched a fun orange hat to her suit at the Ascot Racecourse in 2009, the same year Kate paired a matching hat with her lavender coat at the wedding of a British aristocrat. (Samir Hussein/WireImage; Indigo/Getty via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Equestrian chic

    Princess Charlotte Casiraghi of Monaco looked ready to ride in 2003 at the International Horse Jumping Show. Kate Middleton went for a similar look with tall riding boots and a crisp white skirt in 2007 at the Badminton Horse Trials.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Bruno Bebert/Rex; Rex USA InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Classic coats

    Princess Caroline of Monaco looked chic in a classic trench in London in 1973. The same style still looked fresh on Kate Middleton in 2008 as she watched Prince William receive his military pilot's wings. (Popperfoto/Getty; Michael Dunlea/AP via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Holiday wear

    Princess Diana wore a red coat and black hat on Christmas Day in 1993. Kate wore the same winning combination during the 2006 holidays.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty; Anwar Hussein Collection/ROTA/WireImage Photos via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Royal blues

    Crown Princess Mary of Denmark looked elegant in a teal gown at a birthday celebration. Kate Middleton looked equally regal in a blue halter at a charity gala in 2006. (Tim Rooke/Rex; JPI via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Black and white

    Princess Diana dressed in a chic black and white skirt suit at Royal Albert Hall in 1990. Kate dressed similarly to receive her diploma from the University of St. Andrews in 2005.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Tim Graham/Getty; Michael Dunlea/Getty via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Feathered hats

    Princess Diana wore a feathered hat for outing in Pembrokeshire in 1981, while Kate Middleton wore an almost-identical one to a wedding in 2006. (Jayne Fincher/Getty; Tim Graham/Getty via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Metallic gowns

    Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden wore a beautiful bronze silk gown to a banquet for the Danish Royals in 2007. Kate opted for an elegant chrome-colored gown for the annual Starlight Children's Foundation event in 2009.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Tim Rooke/Rex; Alan Davidson/Rex via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Feminine florals

    Queen Rania of Jordan chose a delicate floral dress for a Royal Military Academy parade in 2006. In 2007, Kate Middleton wore a similar carefree look on a walk through West London. (MJ Kim/Getty; Ramey Photo via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Fur hats

    Princess Marie Chantal of Greece wore a luxurious fur hat to the wedding of the Dutch Crown Princess in 2002. In 2006, Kate kept warm in a fur hat at the Cheltenham Races.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (UK Press/Getty; Tim Graham/Getty via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Polka dots

    Princess Diana looked glamorous in a red polka-dot dress at the premiere of "For Your Eyes Only" in 1981. Kate Middleton dazzled in the same pattern at the Chakravarty Polo Match in 2006. (Tim Graham/Getty; Rex via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Menswear

    Princess Diana went shopping at Harvey Nichols in 1995 wearing an understated neutral pant paired with a blazer. Kate Middleton dressed almost identically 10 years later out and about in London.

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    Kate Gosselin’s Style Evolution (Rex USA (2) via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (13) Kate Middleton’s princess style
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    Slideshow (87) Wacky royal wedding memorabilia
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    Slideshow (27) A royal couple’s long courtship
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    Slideshow (10) Wild wedding records

Video: Where will William and Kate honeymoon?

  1. Closed captioning of: Where will William and Kate honeymoon?

    >>> the royal wedding . exactly three weeks away. so where will the happy couple honeymoon after the big day ? nbc's keith miller has the enviable task of following that part of the story. he's in corfu , greece, for us. good morning, you lucky guy .

    >> reporter: indeed, meredith. this part of greece i would say is part of the international hot spots looked at as possible honeymoon venues. the island has what it takes to make a honeymoon work -- romance, romance and more romance.

    >> reporter: the greeks have been entertaining royal visitors for centuries. lovers have dipped their toes in the wine-dark mediterranean sea since the time of cleopatra and marc antony . this is where prince philip was born. british newspapers call corfu the honeymoon destination for its natural beauty, elegance and privacy.

    >> i'm sure they would choose a private yacht or something by the sea.

    >> reporter: in london's betting shops the favorite destination is kenya with corfu a close second.

    >> if i was having a little bit myself i might bet on corfu .

    >> reporter: there are other favorites. perhaps the royal couple will go to the caribbean. there is richard branson 's luxury hideaway for the rich & famous . the island of mystique holds magic for the royals. and the spanish island of abitha has attracted william and kate on vacation to unwind. during his recent trip to australia prince william said he would return, joking maybe a honeymoon on the coast. still, according to one british newspaper, corfu is the destination of choice. prince william learned to waterski here. his father prince charles and wife camilla have been guests at the secluded rothschild estate. it take as boat ride to scout it out.

    >> this is the house. and this is the castle. yes. the other house belongs to the son.

    >> reporter: wherever the royal newlyweds chill out after the wedding, laid back, not lavish is expected. word from buckingham palace is that tough economic times calls for discretion. here on corfu they are already toasting the royal wedding . overjoyed at the prospect of the newlyweds honeymooning on their island. a honeymoon isn't all about location. as one writer put it, meredith, a husband may not remember where he had his honeymoon but he will never forget why.

    >> that's for sure, keith miller . thank you very much. our coverage of the royal wedding starts at 4:00 a.m . eastern,

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