When Prince William emerged from the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London with his new baby in a car seat, and confidently clicked it into place on the back seat (a maneuver, royal insiders later told The Daily Beast, that he had taken the trouble to practice in the privacy of Kate Middleton’s mum’s house in advance), a new dawn of involved royal parenting broke across the realm.
And with a second royal baby on the way, attention is once again turning to Kate and William’s loving and ‘attached’ parenting style (Kate is said by friends of the royals to be an aficionado of the baby-raising methods of Gina Ford).
For of all the many unusual departures from royal protocol that Kate Middleton has made—sunbathing topless, going walkabout without knickers and flashing her butt to the cameras—it is no exaggeration to say that the most astonishing of all to the palace old guard has been her decision to do without a maternity nurse after her son Prince George was born.
This is simply not the done thing for royal princesses.
But Kate has clung to her middle-class roots and middle-class ideas of child-rearing defiantly. She hired a full-time nanny only when it became unavoidable as the family made plans to travel to Australia for a royal tour.
Despite all entreaties to the contrary, Kate flatly refused to hire any help, preferring instead after the birth to retreat to her mother’s house in the country, and do the night feeds herself with the help of her husband—who quit his job as an RAF rescue pilot to be more available—in support.
Not since the days of Queen Alexandra (wife of Edward VII), who, in the 1860s would, according to her head nurse, “run up to the nursery, put on a flannel apron, wash the children herself and see them asleep in their little beds,” has such devotion to royal children by their parents been witnessed.
For, with a few notable exceptions, the British royal family’s record of child rearing is a lamentable one. The general approach has been to treat children harshly and cruelly, with the specific aim of calcifying their soft little hearts in preparation for the cruel rigors of ruling.
Harry and William themselves, of course, had a disastrous childhood. Their parents’ marital breakdown was played out on television screens and newspapers and Diana would sob on her children’s shoulders as she narrated her latest romantic disaster.
No surprise that the boys turned to nannies Jessie Webb (later hired as a part-time nanny for Prince George) and Olga Powell to provide them security.
Charles was not noted for his emotional availability.
But, as Philip Larkin noted, if our parents do fuck us up, it’s only because “They were fucked up in their turn” too, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Prince Charles.
Charles deeply resents the lack of affection showed to him as a child. He has spoken openly about the mortifying day when his father came to his boarding school to see his son, just turned 17, play the title role in the school production of Macbeth — and laughed out loud at his performance.
“I had to lie on a huge, fur rug and have a nightmare,” Prince Charles told his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby.
“My parents came and watched, along with other parents. I lay there and thrashed about and all I could hear was my father and ‘ha, ha, ha’. I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Why did you laugh?’ and he said, ‘It sounds like The Goons.’”
In 1994, Charles allowed Dimbleby to reveal that he felt “emotionally estranged” from his parents and, all his life, had yearned for the kind of affection that, in his view, they were “unable or unwilling to offer”. He described his mother’s parenting as “detached” and his father, Philip, as “very bullying” and “inexplicably harsh.”
Charles’ extraordinary decision to air his grievances with his parents in public hurt his parents (Philip responded by saying, “We did our best”), but in private Charles also held his father responsible for “forcing” him to marry Diana. When the marriage went stale, Robert Lacey has written, Charles took to carrying round in his breast pocket a letter his father had written him telling him to marry Diana, and showing it to anyone he could interest.
Philip’s childhood, was, however, bizarre by modern standards. He almost never saw his parents—his father lived a playboy lifestyle in the South of France and his mother was committed to an insane asylum (where, on the orders of Sigmund Freud, her gonads were exposed to X-ray to bring on menopause).
His closest family relative, a sister, Cecile, was killed in an air crash in 1937, and he also served in the Navy in the war, and the trauma of combat is thought to have affected him more deeply than he ever let on, or perhaps knew himself.
Philip has never been given to displays of emotion, and saw his role as a father to ‘toughen up’ his sons.
The Queen had a pleasant upbringing at the hands of George VI (stammering Bertie) and the Queen Mother, but George VI’s stammer is thought by pop psychologists to be a direct result of the cruel way his father, the bullying George V, raised his sons Albert (Bertie/George VI) and David (the abdicator, Edward VIII).
George V famously said to Lord Derby—and the line is included in somewhat bastardized form in the film The King’s Speech—“My father was frightened of his mother, I was frightened of my father and I’m damned well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me!”
He oversaw a brutal regime, aimed at instilling respect, deference and acceptance of duty into the princes.
According to David Cohen’s encyclopedic book Bringing Them Up Royal, Albert (aka Bertie aka George VI) was naturally lefthanded but he was forced to write with his right hand and his legs were encased in splints to straighten his knock knees.
Albert probably counted himself lucky—his brother, epileptic Prince John, was shut away on a remote farmstead on the Sandringham estate, never visited by his father. He died aged 14.
George V wrote to a cousin after his death that John had “been practically shut up for the last two years anyhow, so no one has ever seen him except the family, and then only once or twice a year. This poor boy had become more of an animal than anything else.”
He was, as one can imagine, unsympathetic of Bertie’s stammering and would often mock him for it.
But how was George V brought up himself? Well, not too badly. His father (and predecessor on the throne) was Edward VII, the riotous Prince of Wales who became, much to everyone’s surprise, a rather good king for the years of his reign (1901–1910).
His mother was the doting Princess Alexandra (previously mentioned), who was regarded as most eccentric as she rushed up to the nursery to bid her children good night.
Edward and Alexandra were the most permissive royal parents. According to Alexandra’s biography by Georgina Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra, the children were not restricted to the nursery as in many Victorian homes. Queen Victoria once commented on the children, "They are such ill-bred, ill-trained children, I can’t fancy them at all."
But Edward would not be swayed. He told his mother, “If children are too strictly or perhaps too severely treated they get shy and only fear those whom they ought to love.”
Edward’s own upbringing at the hands of Queen Victoria was, by contrast, brutal.
The Queen’s strict parenting even shocked her consort, Prince Albert. In one letter to her, he wrote: “It is a pity you find no consolation in the company of your children. The trouble lies in the mistaken notion the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding and ordering them about.”
When asked how she could bear to hear the children cry so much, the Queen replied: “Once you’ve had nine, you don’t notice any more.”
Edward VII got the worst of it. Victoria disliked him after a difficult birth and Albert, convinced his unruly behavior had explicable origins, employed a phrenologist who said his skull showed signs of abnormality.
Biographer Jane Ridley has written of Edward VII, “He spied on Bertie, he whipped him, he treated him as a patient.”
Queen Victoria held Edward VII responsible for Prince Albert’s death after the discovery that he had slept with a prostitute coincided with his final, fatal illness.
But guess what? Queen Victoria did not have the most normal upbringing himself. Her father died when she was a baby, and her life was almost entirely controlled by her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her adviser, John Conroy. It was Conroy who wrote a pamphlet which detailed “the Kensington system,” the strict set of ludicrous strictures by which Victoria’s life was lived and by which Conroy attempted to foster utter dependency on himself. Victoria was, for example, not allowed to walk downstairs without Conroy holding her hand.
As Larkin would no doubt expect, the history of dubious royal parenting steps back to time immemorial. George IV, for example, was handed over to two clergymen with specific instructions to “flog him whenever he deserved it” as his mother, Charlotte, found doing so too upsetting.
George II (who ruled from 1727–1760) expelled his son Frederick from St James’s Palace and his mother, Caroline, said of him on her deathbed, “At least I shall have one comfort in having my eyes eternally closed, I shall never have to see that monster again.”
But then again, there are examples of rather magnificent family devotion: when Richard the Lionheart was taken captive, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, invented a new tax specifically to raise the gigantic ransom required to free him in 1194.
Now that, indeed, is testament to a mother’s love of which even Kate would be proud.