When Queen Elizabeth II welcomed her first child in 1948, people’s expectations of parenthood were very different to what they are today. In fact, looking back, aspects of the monarch’s relationship with her offspring might look pretty unusual to modern eyes. But her parenting style was something that her own children had differing views on.
Modern Royal parenting
For the most part, royal parenting is something that has taken place firmly behind palace doors. But in recent years, the newest generation of the British monarchy have happily played moms and dads in public. Prince William and Kate Middleton, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, seem eager to give their kids as “normal” a childhood as possible.
William's paternal role
For instance, William has been a hands-on dad from the very beginning. Unlike many royal fathers before him, he was present at the birth of his first child, Prince George, in 2013. And the doting dad was also in the labor room to see his subsequent children, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, arrive in the world.
A Royal proclamation
But while there are some traditions William and Kate have rejected, there are others that they’re expected to follow. For instance, protocol dictates that they and other royals had to tell the Queen of their children’s births prior to anyone else. And it’s also custom for them to announce their new arrivals by means of a royal proclamation which is displayed outside Buckingham Palace on an easel.
The Monarchy's social media
Of course, times change and these days, royal births are also simultaneously announced on the monarchy’s official social media accounts. All the same, it’s customary for royals to present their children to the public a few days after their birth. As such, William and Kate posed with all their three babies outside the Lindo Wing of London’s St. Mary’s Hospital. After his birth in 2016, meanwhile, Harry and Meghan showed Archie Mountbatten-Windsor off via an appearance in Windsor Castle.
Given the English monarch’s position as the head of the Church of England, all royal babies are expected to be baptized. Both William and Harry have followed this tradition with their own children. What’s more, they’ve each worn the same christening gown, which is based on one worn by Queen Victoria’s daughter all the way back in 1841.
Strict dress code
And royal children are expected to follow certain fashion rules beyond their baptisms. Kate and William are expected to adhere to a dress code when it comes to their kids, which includes not dressing their sons in trousers until they’re about eight years of age. That’s why you most often see George and Louis in shorts, no matter what the British weather is doing.
Modern changes in attire
But the subject of their children’s clothing is something that Kate and William have made changes to over the years. We’ve seen their kids wearing more relaxed attire than we may have seen other royals in previously. In fact, George famously wore a bathrobe when meeting America’s president in 2016.
Similarly, fits of temper from young royals are not to be tolerated by their parents. But while Kate and William have a team around them to help defuse outbursts, they’ve been known to take more of a hands-on approach. Kate has kept her children in check even in public view, even lowering herself to their level to get her point across.
Another way that Kate has forged her own path as a royal parent is by admitting that being a mom comes with its struggles. Speaking at an event in support of maternal mental health in 2017 she said, “Becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience. However, at times it has also been a huge challenge.”
Princess Diana's influence
But Kate isn’t the first mother to do things differently to older generations of the monarchy. After Princess Diana gave birth to William and Harry, she was credited with ripping up the royal parenting rulebook with her less-formal approach to raising her sons. And by doing so, she won hearts around the world.
A nurturing mama
Rather than putting her royal duties above her children, Diana would often try to work her schedule around William and Harry. She was also more visibly affectionate than royal parents before her, even hugging her sons in public. While that doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking, such public displays of affection have never exactly been the done thing in the monarchy.
It was also important to Diana that William and Harry should experience things beyond their world of privilege. In the 2017 TV documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, William recalled, “She was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun… She understood that there was a real-life [existence] outside of palace walls.”
Refusing to seek approval
With that in mind, Diana accompanied William and Harry on vacations and family days out, with one popular excursion being to the Thorpe Park theme park. Her biographer Andrew Morton would later claim the princess organized these outings herself, without first seeking the approval of her husband Charles or other members of the royal family.
Diana also included William and Harry in some of her charitable endeavors, including taking the boys to meet AIDs patients. In 1995 she told BBC TV show Panorama, “I’ve taken the children to all sorts of areas, where I’m not sure anyone of that age in this family has been before.”
Understanding the people
But Diana’s motivation for William and Harry to see all aspects of life wasn’t just for their sake. She explained, “I want them to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and people’s hopes and dreams. I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people.”
The arrival of the Queen's children
Needless to say then, Diana played a very proactive role in Harry and William’s lives. But just one generation earlier, when the Queen was welcoming her children, things were very different indeed. She gave birth to all four of her children at home in royal residences. And when her first child, Charles, was born in 1948, Prince Philip wasn’t there to witness the birth, reportedly letting off steam with a game of squash until it was time to meet his son.
Welcoming Princess Anne
The Queen and Philip welcomed their second child, Princess Anne, in 1950. But becoming sovereign two years later put any plans to expand their family further on hold, as she adjusted to her new role. As such, a whole decade passed before Prince Andrew was born in 1960, followed by the birth of her youngest child Prince Edward in 1964.
It seems that, with her youngest two children, the Queen was eager to do things a little differently. That’s because, when Charles and Anne were young, the monarch didn’t show much affection to them in public. Can you imagine how you’d greet your kids if you’d been separated from them for five long months? Well, when the Queen got home from a tour that lasted nearly half a year she greeted them with handshakes.
Slowly warming up
With Andrew and Edward though, the Queen opened up as a mother somewhat. In a November 2020 interview on the website of Town & Country magazine, historian Robert Lacy said of the monarch’s parenting style, “Evidence suggests she became warmer and more flexible as time went by.”
It’s long been speculated that Andrew was in fact the Queen’s favorite child. Explaining why this may be the case, in 2019 royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams told CNN, “When Charles and Princess Anne were born, the Queen wasn’t able to spend the time with them that she would have wished.”
Bonding with Andrew
By contrast, then, Fitzwilliams added, “In 1960 when Andrew was born, the Queen had been on the throne for eight years and didn’t have to leave the toddler to tour the Commonwealth for months. She was able to give him more attention and Andrew was someone with whom she’s had a particular affinity.”
A Royal father witnessing birth
When Edward later came along, the Queen once again changed her approach to motherhood. After reading a magazine article, the monarch encouraged Philip to join her at the birth of their youngest child. And so he became the first father to witness a royal birth in modern history.
Prince Edward's arrival
Upon completing her family, following Edward’s birth, the Queen wrote to her children’s nanny Mabel Anderson to share her joy. She said of their newest addition, “He is a great joy to us all, especially to Andrew, who is completely fascinated by him. In fact, he considers him his own property, even telling Charles and Anne to ‘come and see my baby!’ Goodness, what fun it is to have a baby in the house again!”
Taking a leave of absence
Of course, as the British monarch, the Queen often had to leave her family to travel abroad. This mostly meant leaving her children in the capable hands of palace staff and nannies, just as her parents had done before. But that’s not to say that long periods of absence didn’t have an effect on her little ones.
A long 13-country tour
A year after her 1953 coronation, the Queen embarked upon a 13-country tour of the commonwealth. The trip lasted roughly half a year, at which time Charles was about five, while Anne would have been just three. And though he was only young at the time, his mother’s absence apparently had a profound effect on the heir apparent.
While the Queen and Philip were away, Charles was cared for by the Queen Mother and his beloved nanny Anderson. Known to the young prince as “Mispy,” she was to become a major part of his childhood, being his primary carer even when his parents were not overseas.
Robert Jobson is the royal author behind the biography Charles at Seventy. And in a 2019 interview published on the website of British newspaper the Daily Express, he explained, “Mabel Anderson was certainly Charles’ rock when he was a young and sensitive child… Mabel was a key person in his formative years. She was always there for him and he cared for her deeply.”
Taking the kids along
Even though Charles had a strong bond with his nanny, he decided not to leave his own children at home when he was required to carry out royal tours. In fact, he and Diana took William on a trip to New Zealand and Australia when the toddler was only nine months old. History repeated itself in 2014 when William and Kate took George on a similar trip while he, too, was just a baby.
A strained relationship
Aside from his parents’ long absences, there were other factors that seemingly put a strain on Charles’ relationship with his parents. He was reportedly a sensitive child, and the Queen’s busy schedule led to him feeling isolated as a youngster. What’s more, he was a late developer, which frustrated his father, and he wasn’t the athletic type either.
Things were made worse for Charles when he was sent to Gordonstoun, a prestigious private boarding school in Scotland. It appears that despite sharing a dorm with more than a dozen other boys, the experience felt more akin to prison for the young prince. But despite his unhappiness at the establishment, the youngster had no choice but to stick things out.
Dealing with a strict routine and bouts of bullying, an unhappy Charles expressed his despair in letters home. One written in 1963 read, “The people in my dormitory are foul. Goodness, they are horrid. I don’t know how anybody could be so foul.” In another, he said, “I hardly get any sleep in the House because I snore and I get hit on the head all the time. It’s absolute hell.”
Turning a blind eye
Despite his clear unhappiness at Gordonstoun, Charles stayed at the school. As such, it would seem that his parents had turned a blind eye to his written complaints. Yet according to a new documentary about the Queen, it appears that she and Philip were not purposefully cold to their children.
Portrayed as a distant mother
Modern interpretations of the Queen, including that seen on hit TV show The Crown have portrayed her as a fairly distant mother. In fact, it’s been said that the royal children only got to see her for half an hour per day, if they were lucky. But in the 2020 National Geographic documentary Being the Queen royal biographer Tim Heald said, “It wasn’t that anybody was being deliberately unkind or cold… it was just the way you did things.”
The impact of boarding schools
In the documentary former Member of Parliament Lord McNally seemingly addressed Charles’ experiences at Gordonstoun. And the politician didn’t mince his words. He said that while boarding schools provided the royal children with rigorous discipline, they didn’t necessarily “produce rounded human beings emotionally.”
"A full-time job times 20"
But Being the Queen director Tom Jennings can see the situation from the sovereign’s perspective. In 2020 he told Glamour magazine, “Keep in mind that running the monarchy is a full-time job times 20, so things like family time fall through the cracks.” As such, he said that boarding schools could fill a gap left by royal parents’ busy schedules.
Craving nurturing and guidance
Still, according to Jennings this strategy hadn’t paid off. As he pointed out, “Entrusting their children to boarding schools, private tutors, and such is terrific for one’s education, but it isn’t the same as the nurturing and guidance that you would get from a parent.”
What Charles learned
Yet as an adult, it seems that Charles has changed his opinion on his experiences at boarding school. At the launch of The Prince’s Trust Charles reportedly said, “[Gordonstoun] was only tough in the sense that it demanded more of you as an individual than most other schools did – mentally or physically. I am lucky in that I believe it taught me a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities.”
Defending Queen Elizabeth II
Even so, it’s been speculated that the Queen was somewhat “distant” as a mother. But despite critical opinions being voiced over the monarch’s parenting techniques, her children came to their mother’s defense over the years. In 2002 Princess Anne said of her mom, “I simply don’t believe there is any evidence whatsoever to suggest that she wasn’t caring. It just beggars belief.” So we can’t really argue with that!
The only job that matters
What’s more, the Queen herself expressed pride in her role of being a parent. According to Good Housekeeping magazine, when Kate Winslet met the monarch at an awards ceremony in 2012, she told her how she “loves being a mum” more than being a movie star. In a sweet exchange, the Queen reportedly agreed, “Yes. That’s the only job that matters.”