What royal watchers can forget the adorable antics of Prince Louis, and all the times he has acted, well, like a kid? At the Trooping of the Colour last month, the five-year-old pulled his famous faces, and at one point seemed to imitate a pilot as the military flew over Buckingham Palace. Fans have also been charmed by Prince William and Princess Kate’s seemingly relaxed and accepting reaction to their youngest child’s cheeky behavior—unthinkable to previous royal generations.
William and Kate’s more modern, tactile parenting style stands in stark contrast to the way royals have parented for centuries. Equally memorable, but much less fun, is the image of Louis’s grandfather, King Charles III, as a solemn young boy greeting his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, after she and Prince Philip had been away on a months-long commonwealth tour. The little prince receives no hug from his mother, just a formal handshake.
Elizabeth and Philip’s cold parenting style would lead Princess Diana to reportedly quip that the only thing her husband “learned about love from the Queen and Prince Philip was shaking hands.” But sadly, the parental distance Charles experienced has been the norm in royal households for centuries.
“Royal parents traditionally had nothing to do with their children’s day-to-day care when they were very young—George V, the late Queen’s grandfather, once saw a maid pushing a pram along a corridor at Buckingham Palace,” Tom Quinn, author of Gilded Youth: A History of Growing Up in the Royal Family, tells Vanity Fair. “He said to the maid: ‘Whose baby is that?’ The maid replied, ‘It’s yours, sir.’”
Royal children were also often treated harshly by their parents. “My father was frightened of his mother,” King George V of England once reportedly said. “I was frightened of my father, and I am damn well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me!”
Fostering out children was seen as a necessity when life expectancy was short and royal children were needed to assume governing duties (and marry) as quickly as possible. “In medieval times, royal princes and princesses were sent away aged just eight or nine to live in other aristocratic households—the idea was to make the child into an adult as soon as possible,” Quinn says. “The modern version of this is the royal obsession with boarding schools: sending princes and princesses to schools where they live and work 24/7 and only return home every couple of months.”
Day-to-day child-rearing was considered undignified for royals; they were usually given to wet nurses from the moment they were born. They were then handed over to nannies (whom many royal women have been notably jealous of for their close relationship to their charges) and strict—sometimes violent—governors and tutors who were pressured to produce dignified, noble “mini adults” who would make the ruling house proud, but this method came at a cost.
“The royal obsession with making princes and princesses as mature as possible as early as possible actually has the opposite effect and many royal children (especially boys) never really grow up,” says Quinn. “They behave like children when they grow up because they were not allowed to be children when they were young. This applies to Edward VII, George V and VI, Edward VIII, and especially King Charles.”
Parental estrangement could also have catastrophic consequences. Kings often viewed their sons, who were virtual strangers, as rivals and enemies. Three sons of Henry II of England would wage war against their father. In 1718, Peter the Great of Russia had his son Alexei tortured and killed. The dysfunctional Hanoverian kings of England uniformly despised their eldest sons, leading one courtier to reportedly quip, “The House of Hanover like ducks produces bad parents… They trample on their young.”
Even loving royal parents often found their hands tied by dynastic ambition and royal precedent. According to In Triumph’s Wake by Julia P. Gelardi, in 1502, a teenage Catherine of Aragon found herself trapped and destitute in England after the death of her first husband, Prince Arthur. Her anguished mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, instructed her ambassador to beg Arthur’s father, King Henry VII, to send Catherine back to her parents:
You shall say to the King of England that we cannot endure that a daughter whom we love should be so far from us when she is in affliction, and that she should not have us at hand to console her; also it would be more suitable for a young girl of her age to be with us than to be in any other place.
King Henry VII declined, and Isabella never saw her daughter again.
The red tape of protocol also often stopped royal parents (particularly mothers) from having meaningful roles in their children’s lives. In 1594, James I of England and his wife, Queen Anne, had their first child, Henry. James soon entrusted his heir to be raised by the Earl of Mar.
“A furious Anna demanded that the Scottish council discuss these arrangements for the heir to the throne to occupy a separate household and began to cultivate allies in her effort to retain custody of her son,” Carolyn Harris writes in Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. “James refused to allow a debate about the circumstances of Henry’s upbringing. Anna responded by attempting to kidnap her son from his guardians…Anna threatened not to bear any further children unless she were permitted to raise her son.”
According to Harris, a compromise was soon reached, though to modern ears it sounds like a paltry concession. Prince Henry would stay with the Earl of Mar, and Queen Anne would have more input into her future children’s guardians.
However, as David Cohen notes in Bringing Them Up Royal: How the Royals Raised Their Children from 1066 to the Present Day, King James I clearly did love his children. James had endured a horrific, virtually orphaned childhood (his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered when James was an infant, and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned). Clearly attempting to give his son the parental guidance he never had, he wrote a touching treatise on kingship called the Basilikon Doron for Prince Henry especially.
If royal children were lucky enough to be housed with their parents, they were often in distant nurseries, which could cause distinct problems in times of turmoil. In 1620, when King Frederick and Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia were forced to flee Prague, they accidentally left one of their large brood behind.
“As the last carriages were preparing to leave the castle courtyard, a court chamberlain made a last inspection of the royal apartments,” Harris writes. “Following the sound of a baby’s cries, he discovered Frederick and Elizabeth’s eleven-month-old son, Prince Rupert, who had been forgotten or abandoned by his nurse.”
This parental neglect would continue. Elizabeth’s daughter Sophia wrote witheringly that her mother preferred “the sight of her monkeys and dogs to that of her children.”
As Quinn notes, royal parenting styles often lag generations behind that of their subjects, but there have been exceptions. In the late 18th century, Marie Antoinette of France embraced Enlightenment principles and was determined that her children would be her “friends,” allowed to have childhoods and develop individual personalities, unencumbered by their predestined roles. “He has no idea of his station in his head, and I strongly desire that this continue,” she wrote of her eldest son, Prince Louis Joseph. “Our children learn soon enough what they are.”
Marie Antoinette’s parenting style was not the norm. In the 19th century, royals increasingly presented themselves as united families to appease middle-class sensibilities. No one did this more brilliantly than Queen Victoria, the “mother of Europe,” whose brood of nine was often photographed with their parents. Raised under the careful direction of their strict, progressive father, Prince Albert, they still were primarily looked after by servants.
According to Cohen, Queen Victoria, who was not a great fan of children, warned her daughter that “too great care, too much constant watching leads to the very dangers hereafter which one wishes to avoid.”
But times were changing, and the advent of modern media meant royal families were being “watched” like never before. As the world rapidly changed, some royal parents attempted to shield their precious children from political machinations and press intrusion.
Perhaps the most hands-on, coddling royal parents of the early 20th century were the doomed Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife, Alexandra. “The greatest treasure that parents can leave their children is a happy childhood,” Tsarina Alexandra wrote, per Harris, “with tender memories of father and mother. It will lighten the forthcoming days, it will preserve them from temptation, and it will help them face the harsh realities of life after they leave the parental roof.”
The Tsar and Tsarina were attentive, even smothering parents, and an early nanny was fired when she complained Alexandra popped into the royal nursery too often. The five Romanov children were isolated with their parents and servants, and desperate to learn about the outside world. According to Maria Rasputin, daughter of the “Mad Monk,” the four imperial daughters would pepper her with questions about her life and thought her school and trips to the cinema and circus were “the rarest and most enviable of wonders.”
Queen Elizabeth II would receive much the same upbringing with loving parents and attentive nannies but little contact with the outside world, and long separations from her parents. Her mother, Elizabeth, detailed the anguish many royal parents must have felt when leaving her children for a commonwealth tour. “Feel very miserable at leaving the baby,” she wrote. “Went up & played with her & she was so sweet. Luckily, she doesn’t realize anything…I drank some champagne and tried not to weep.”
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip continued this tradition, although reportedly with less warmth. “Elizabeth…inherited the idea that the young Charles and Anne must be looked after by nannies and governesses—they had nothing to do with Charles’s and Anne’s daily routine when they were babies,” Quinn writes. “All the work was done by paid staff and Elizabeth and Philip saw their children just once each day for a very formal meeting. One member of staff told me that, ‘Queen Elizabeth would no more visit the nursery than fly—instead we took the children to see her each day.’”
Constantly working, Queen Elizabeth is said to have keenly felt she was hurting her children by not being available to them (she would try to spend more time with her younger children, Andrew and Edward). “Once when he walked by her door, Charles asked her to come and play with him,” Cohen writes. “‘If only I could,’ she said.”
With the weight of the Crown on her shoulders, Elizabeth, perhaps misguidedly, left many family decisions to her husband, who had very little parenting in his chaotic childhood. This resulted in a legendary thick shell, and according to Quinn, an awkwardness with children. “I think children should be toughened up and just get on with it,” Philip once said, according to Quinn. “We fuss far too much about children’s sensitivities and emotional well-being. It’s largely nonsense.”
So, imagine the royal family’s shock when Princess Diana decided to shake things up. Like Marie Antoinette, she believed in enlightened parenting and despised the cold, removed relationship she and other aristocratic and royal parents had with their kids. “If only my parents hadn’t had enough money to do stupid things like employing endless nannies,” she told a friend, per Quinn, “they might have done something for us themselves. Stupid people are bad enough but rich stupid people are the absolute worst.”
In many ways, she started a royal parenting revolution that was adopted by many European ruling houses. She was demonstratively affectionate in private and public, took them to McDonald’s and amusement parks, and made sure many harsher aspects of royal life were not imposed on “her boys.” It is a legacy of involvement her sons are attempting to follow, expand, and refine (no McDonald’s for Kate’s children Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis).
“William and Kate—but especially Kate—are determined to do things differently,” Quinn says. “William was brought up partly by Charles (who was embarrassed by physical affection) but also by Diana who loved to hug her children. But despite their slightly more modern outlook, both Charles and Diana still relied on paid staff—nannies—to do most of the work. Old habits die hard!”
According to Quinn, the “warm and maternal” Kate, who was raised in a loving, tight-knit family, insisted William change diapers and bathe the kids, take them on school runs, and put their family first. “The family’s recent move to Windsor is designed to ensure that even if the boys go to boarding school at Eton (which is near Windsor), their parents will be close enough to see them regularly,” he explains.
But the Prince and Princess of Wales are still restricted in how much control they have over their children’s lives. According to Quinn, when William and Kate discussed sending their children to state schools, there was pushback from “The Firm.” And the family still has a huge staff, including super nanny Maria Teresa Turrion Borrallo.
“When (Kate) demurred and suggested she would like to do a little more the nitty-gritty part of the childcare,” Quinn writes in Gilded Youth, “it was made very clear to her that this was best left to the professionals, and Kate is nothing if not obedient to the rules of life in the royal family.”
Nowhere is the Prince and Princess of Wales’s modern outlook on parenting more obvious than in their reaction to Prince Louis’s adorable antics. “Old school royal parents would have felt Louis’s behaviour was undignified for a royal child of any age,” says Quinn, “because elements of the old obsession with royal princes behaving like adults even when they are still children still persists, but Kate and William are acutely aware of how much good publicity comes from having a charming child!”
However, according to Gilded Youth, there are still limits to how much a royal child can misbehave. When Kate tells her children the seemingly benign “let’s take a break,” it seems to mean: You are going to be in big trouble if you don’t stop. Time will tell if the coded parenting technique is a success.