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)
It's pretty obvious by now that being a royal baby was not all sugar plums and silver rattles. Enter Victoria, whose widowed and spendthrift mother, the Duchess of Kent, was visited frequently by bailiffs at Kensington Palace, the family home in London. The young Victoria, second in line to the throne at the age of seven, was the subject of vicious political infighting. The Duchess and her adviser, John Conroy, were puppet masters to the young girl, who was never allowed to be alone. At home she was tutored in math, music and the history of Hanoverian royalty. She was given a multitude of dolls to play with in place of human friends. As a result, writes David Cohen in his history Bringing Them Up Royal , "Victoria felt bullied and unloved."
In cruel contrast to the peculiarities of her upbringing, Victoria was taken for walks in Kensington Gardens so the public could see how "normal" she was. Of course, life was anything but: What other child but a princess would develop a fear of bishops' robes and be given a brooch by the mistress of the king?
As we now know, the great wheel of family travels along
a narrow track, and Victoria and her consort, Albert, were loving but strict parents to their nine children. Their heir, Bertie, suffered particularly from their anxieties: At one point, his parents called in a phrenologist to shave the boy's head and determine his failings from the bumps found there. Bertie, relentlessly drilled and schooled, lashed out with fits of temper at the Victorian equivalent of helicopter parenting.
Elizabeth II (born 1926)
If you want proof of the oddity of the royal nursery, consider the names of young Elizabeth's governesses: Bobo and Crawfie. Fortunately, Elizabeth had that rarest of beginnings, a happy and reasonably normal royal childhood (if you ignore the fact that the home secretary was in the next room when she was born, presumably to ensure that no peasant baby was smuggled in at the last moment).
The first child born to the Duke and Duchess of York bawled at her christening and was soothed with dill-water. "It was the last time," writes biographer Sarah Bradford, "that Elizabeth ever made a public scene."
By all accounts, young Elizabeth was a charming and sensible girl, in contrast to her naughtier sister, Margaret. "She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant," Winston Churchill said after meeting the two-year-old princess.
By the early 20th century, interest in aristocratic girls' schooling had fallen by the wayside, and the girls' grandfather George V seemed mainly concerned that they learn excellent penmanship (fortunately they learned much else besides). Elizabeth and Margaret were taught at home, and in the evening were sent to play piano, charades and Snap with their doting parents. Elizabeth, horse-mad even then, insisted on unsaddling her many toy ponies before bed.
Crucially, the British public fell in love with the image of the Yorks as a young, happy family. For the first time, photos of royals playing with their pets and generally being unstuffy appeared in the papers. This public interest only intensified when Elizabeth became second in line to the throne at the age of 10, after her uncle Edward VIII's abdication.
Elizabeth's parents, now King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, were determined to maintain normalcy when they moved to Buckingham Palace: The first Buckingham Palace Company of Girl Guides was formed and met every Wednesday evening.
Prince Charles (born 1948)
At 3, Prince Charles got his own footman. He was 4 before his father attended one of his birthday parties. At 5, he welcomed his mother when she returned from a six-month tour of the Commonwealth – but had to wait for his personal greeting while the Queen shook hands with a line of dignitaries. He may have been hoping for a hug; he got a handshake like everyone else. At 8, he cried when saying goodbye to his parents at the airport as they left for another foreign tour; he wasn't allowed to greet them at the airport on their return.
Okay, so maybe the royal nursery still had a dark side in Charles's childhood. His parents put duty before everything and were determined to "toughen up" the heir to the throne in preparation for his future role. In the finest tradition of the British aristocracy, they packed the eight-year-old off to a life of wretched but hopefully character-building misery at the prep school Cheam and later at Prince Philip's alma mater, Gordonstoun, a bleak Scottish pile where gruel was regarded as a luxury and windows were left open to howling North Sea gales.
These early deprivations may account for some of Charles's eccentricities, although he is reported to be an excellent and loving father to his own sons (and will likely dote on Baby Windsor).
Princes William and Harry (born 1982 and 1984)
It's amazing that princes William and Harry turned out as well as they did, considering the landscape of their early lives. They were brought up in the discord of a modern-day Wars of the Roses fought between their parents, with the Mail and Mirror standing in for chain mail and arrows. They had to contend with the death of their beloved mother when they were only 15 and 12.
Whatever her flaws, Princess Diana was an exemplary mother. Having suffered through her own parents' catastrophic divorce, she was determined that her boys would be raised with physical affection, love and fun – but also with an understanding of their privileges and obligations.
The Queen left her own young children behind when she went on official tours, as she had been left by her parents. Diana was different: She brought William, not yet a year old, on a six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1983. The tour was a hit, the monarchy-shy Australians charmed by the young couple and their son.
If Charles wanted to bring up the boys in the ways of his people (hunting, polo and Eton), Diana was equally bound to show them the pleasures of the 20th century (amusement parks, Disney and Elton John). She took them with her when she visited hospitals, to teach them about the Britain that exists beyond hyphenated names.
Her legacy lives on in her sons' involvement with her favourite charities supporting homelessness, AIDS awareness and land mine removal. Baby Windsor will be born at St. Mary's Hospital in London, where William and Harry were brought into the world. By the time Harry arrived, his parents' marriage had gone pear-shaped, as the Brits like to say. "We had found a date when Charles could get off his polo pony for me to give birth," Diana later noted. William, by contrast, will attend the birth and take two weeks of paternity leave. Even in a hidebound institution, things have to change – sometimes for the better.