Royal baby: Sounds like an ideal job description, doesn’t it? A life of ermine diapers and diamond soothers. Well, historically, not so much. Children of the English monarchy have, in centuries past, been held hostage, kidnapped, murdered, hustled into pre-pubescent marriage for political gain and often raised far from their parents. It’s a bit safer in the palace nursery these days, Elizabeth Renzetti writes, but as the birth of Baby Windsor approaches, it’s worth looking at other significant royal childhoods
Richard III (born 1452)
History remembers Richard of Gloucester as “subtle, false and treacherous,” thanks to the Tudor apologist William Shakespeare, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. By the age of eight he’d been held hostage, sent into exile and suffered the brutal deaths of his father and brother. Even by the ungentle standards of the Middle Ages, that’s one crummy childhood.
Royal children during the Wars of the Roses were currency of a kind, valuable to whomever possessed and could trade them (yes, it really was like Game of Thrones without the dragons). When Richard’s brother seized the crown and became Edward IV, the family’s fortunes changed. Richard was made Duke of Gloucester and was sent off to the household of the Earl of Warwick, “the Kingmaker,” to learn the manly art of war – and a bit of Latin. He was supplied with well-born boys as companions, known as “henchmen” (like The Sopranos without strippers). He was still a teenager when he began commanding troops in his brother’s army. Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the last English king to die in combat. His remains were recently discovered under a municipal parking lot.
Elizabeth I (born 1533)
Oh, to be born a girl when the fate of a country – and the likelihood of your mother retaining her head – rested on you being a boy. When the future Elizabeth I was born on Sept. 7, 1533, the royal proclamation read: “And where it hath pleased the goodness of Almighty God … in the deliverance and bringing forth of a Prince” – except that some scribe had to hastily append an “s” to the final word to indicate the tragedy of a royal female baby. The joust that Henry VIII had planned to celebrate the birth of his male heir was cancelled. (When Elizabeth’s half-brother was born, the joust was back on and free wine flowed, the peasants allowed “to drink as long as they listed.”)
It was Elizabeth’s fate to be born at a crossroads, with her country torn apart by religious strife but also headed into a great era of discovery and knowledge. Her tempestuous father was kinder to his children than to his wives: Historian Antonia Fraser writes that Henry “was an affectionate man, happy to dote upon his children – so long as they did not cross his will.”
As an infant, Elizabeth was sent away to the country – to keep her far from plague – and installed in a house with her own retinue of servants. Her governess would later complain that she did not have enough money to keep the princess in underclothes. Despite being a pawn in a very tense religious war (the Spanish ambassador referred to her as “bastard” in his communications), Elizabeth was a bright child who received a finer education than many royal children in later centuries. Some of the country’s greatest scholars gave her lessons in history, geography and theology, and by the time she was queen, she could tear a strip off courtiers in six languages.
Queen Victoria (born 1819)