Skip to main content

Carolyn Harris is a historian and instructor at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her third book, Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting, will be published in 2017

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrive in Canada on Sept. 24 for their one-week tour of British Columbia and Yukon, they will have their two young children with them. William and Kate made a point of including Prince George, then nine months old, in their 2014 official tour to Australia and New Zealand, and 15-month-old Princess Charlotte will make her first trip abroad with this visit.

The presence of royal children on official tours is comparatively recent. In medieval times, when kings and queens travelled around their realm, their children usually remained behind with trusted noble families.

Related: Princess Charlotte's first birthday: Royals' photos show how she's grown

Related: Trudeau invites William and Catherine for royal tour of Canada

In the 19th and 20th centuries, tours of the British Empire, and then the Commonwealth, separated royal parents from their children for months at a time. When the future Queen Elizabeth was a baby, her parents spent six months travelling to Australia and New Zealand by sea in 1926-27 and her mother wrote in her diary, "I miss the baby all the time & am always wondering what she's doing."

Royal children did tour Europe in the 19th century. Over the course of her reign, Queen Victoria popularized the concept of the family vacation, as photographs of her children in Scotland and at the seaside encouraged the public to take advantage of railways and holidays to plan excursions for their own families. Victoria also took her two oldest children on a state visit to France in 1855.

In 1896, Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his wife, Alexandra (a granddaughter of Victoria), took their 10-month-old daughter Olga on their coronation tour of Europe. Nicholas correctly predicted that the baby would be the focus of attention. That Russian Imperial tour became one of the first news events captured on newsreel cameras.

After the Second World War, royal children assumed a greater presence in the Commonwealth. When Queen Elizabeth's uncle Henry, Duke of Gloucester, became governor-general of Australia in 1945, he and his wife took their two young sons with them. In 1976, the Queen, Prince Philip and all four of their children attended the Montreal Olympics, where Princess Anne competed in equestrian events.

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, began the practice of taking royal babies on shorter Commonwealth tours. Their sons, William and Harry, became world travellers from an early age. Charles wrote from Australia in 1983: "Today [William] actually crawled for the first time." One of the most memorable photographs of Diana depicts her embracing her sons aboard the royal yacht Britannia in Toronto harbour in 1991.

Royal children on tour influence popular perceptions of the monarchy in two ways. First, they create a personal bond between royal parents and the public – parenting provides common ground between royalty and people of all backgrounds.

Second, royal children personify the future of the monarchy. Like Queen Victoria during the last years of her reign, Elizabeth now has three generations of direct heirs. At various points over the course of her long reign, there has been debate about the future of the monarchy. The presence of George and Charlotte in the coming royal visit demonstrates the potential for the monarchy to enjoy public support in Canada and the wider Commonwealth for generations to come.

Interact with The Globe