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.