‘A Skillful Horsewoman’: A Brief History of Royal Childhoods

What it's like to be a modern-day heir to the British throne

Portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children (Wikimedia commons)

It might be good to be the king, in the words of Mel Brooks, but for a long time, it wasn't so good to be the king's preteen. For much of history, the young children of British monarchs were primarily raised by nannies, almost never mixed with commoners, and spent much of their time being drilled by private tutors in history, decorum, and various dead languages.

It seemed a little like being a tiny lieutenant in a very well-heeled navy: Once, a young son of King George V arrived for his daily meeting with his dad wearing a knickerbocker suit -- the kind with baggy-kneed trousers -- and was ordered out of the room to change into a more appropriate outfit.

Over time, though, the lives of young royals have become less cloistered and stiff and more like those of other extremely rich, famous children. They still live in wildly luxurious surroundings, attend the most elite schools, and have round-the-clock nannies and guards, but more recently, royal parents have tried to make princes and princesses feel more "normal" and to allow them to experience the struggles of the less fortunate. These days, the baby-monarch lives less like Marie Antoinette and more like Madonna's kids.


By all accounts, the young Princess Victoria "was a skillful horsewoman, a good musician, and a singularly keen dancer." She was taught Greek and Latin at home and had the occasional dancing lesson from a famous ballerina. But at the same time, she was deliberately isolated from any outside influences, bombarded with a great deal of "devotional literature, moral tales, and sermons," and her playmates consisted primarily of her dolls and her half-sister. She reportedly later described her childhood as "rather melancholy."

Princess Victoria, aged four. (Stephen Poyntz Denning/Wikimedia Commons)

As an adult, she became harsh and seemingly disdainful of her own offspring, calling them "ugly," "nasty," and "frog-like."

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's son, Edward VII, rarely socialized outside of a few rigid "play dates" with other children of aristocracy, which consisted of the boys drinking tea while Prince Albert sat with them at the table.

Perhaps in reaction to being inflicted with endless reading and memory-training sessions during boyhood, Edward grew up to remember very little but "people, gossip, and the score," as Kingsley Martin wrote in a 1962 Atlantic article.

It wasn't unusual for the prince-king relationship to be chilly: King George V treated his children like "unruly midshipmen" and once said he was "damned well going to see to it that his children were frightened" of him.

Martin offered a theory as to why monarchs raised in strict, secluded conditions cut loose once they got older, abdicating so they could get with American socialites and the like:

"Prevented by their exalted status from mixing with other children, they lived secluded lives, been taught and supervised by tutors and governesses, have often been strictly disciplined in youth, only suddenly to be released into a world of unparalleled opportunity and no responsibility."

Things began to change with the young Elizabeth II, who had a relatively normal, modest childhood in a not-extravagant London house. As Arianne Chernock, a history professor at Boston University, told me, this happened largely because she wasn't raised to be queen -- she fell into the line of succession after her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated when she was 10.

Though Elizabeth was educated primarily at home, she also joined the Girl Guides (a scouting-type group), and eventually she picked up a distinctly non-regal skillset. Because of the war, she was trained in "First Aid, Home Nursing, Child Welfare, and various forms of Civil Defense," asthe Atlantic wrote in 1943, adding, "Princess Elizabeth is concerning herself particularly with the last, and acquiring incidentally a good all-round knowledge of electricity."

Prince Charles, front left, the eight-month-old son of then-Princess Elizabeth of England, left, and the Duke of Edinburgh, on July 18, 1949. (AP)

Elizabeth stuck to tradition when it came to raising her own children, though, spending just an hour or two with them each day when they were infants. Instead, Charles and his siblings were primarily attended to by a nanny, Mabel Anderson, "whose job it was each morning to inform Her Majesty by direct phone just when the little prince will be ready for his bath," Time wrote in 1960.

Charles was tutored at home for much of his childhood, but eventually his parents sought to make him more worldly and down-to-earth than his predecessors: He became the first heir to the throne to go to a real (though still exclusive and private) school.

For Charles' education, Prince Philip wanted an institution that would "free the sons of the rich and powerful from the enervating sense of privilege." Students at the school, Gordonstoun, took cold showers at 6:45 a.m., slept with the windows open in the snowy weather, and ran half a mile before breakfast. Charles seemed ill-suited to this environment, particularly as the media chronicled his every athletic defeat.

"You can't expect us to be geniuses," Prince Philip once said in exasperation.

Charles later likened the school to a harsh prison camp -- "Colditz with kilts." For his own kids, he would opt for a less restrictive -- and in some ways even "typical" -- royal childhood.


Britain's Prince Harry sticks out his tongue for the cameras on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London on June 11, 1988. (Steve Holland/AP)

Shortly after 9 p.m. on June 21, 1982, thousands of people gathered outside St. Mary's hospital in London popped champagne corks and cheered. A notice went up on the gate of Buckingham Palace: "Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales, was safely delivered of a son at 9:03 p.m. tonight."

From the start, Charles and Diana were determined to be as much like everyday parents as possible. William had a nanny, but Diana gave baths and read books, and even took William as a toddler on official trips abroad -- a rarity for the royal family. (Prince Charles learned to read when he was four, while his mother was on a tour of the Commonwealth).

The two princes both went to local private schools, but William and Harry ventured out to public playgrounds, ate at McDonald's, and even waited in line to see Santa at Selfridges, a department store, like everybody else. William and Harry got an allowance; Charles had apparently no idea what money was worth until he was 8.

Later, Diana let them wear un-princely garb like jeans and baseball caps, but Charles pushed back in a more conservative direction after the couple's divorce, as Time wrote in 1996:

With Diana, he and Harry wear jeans and bomber jackets and eat at trendy restaurants, surf the Caribbean or (last summer) dirt-bike at Goldie Hawn's Colorado ranch. Vacations with Dad are spent shooting and fishing at Balmoral Castle in traditional tweeds. William reportedly no longer demands hamburgers and Cokes while at Balmoral but requests venison and red wine. For his 13th birthday, Charles presented him with the services of a valet.

Still, royal kids get extensive media training -- even before they're out of diapers. William reportedly began doing the "Windsor wave" at 18 months, and Charles taught him how to behave in front of cameras. William mastered the media spotlight early, as Harold Brooks-Baker, a royal chronicler and publisher, told People magazine in 1986, when William was four: "William has the most amazing aplomb and sangfroid when he meets other people."


The media scrutinized William and Kate's own pregnancy even more intensely, with networks devising " birth plans" and cameramen marking their territory around St. Mary's hospital with duct tape and stepladders.

Most royal-watchers have said the couple will try to fend off the press as much as they can, but the actual upbringing of the new king or queen-to-be is likely to be even more laid back than that of past British royals.

"Expectations for the elite are changing," Chernock said. "William and Kate have made it a priority to modernize." The Duchess, famously, even does her own grocery shopping.

Besides, it's hard enough to be King Jr. without enduring cold showers and private Greek lessons. As Martin wrote (with a hint of self-awareness) in 1962:

"How can a child grow into a normal adult if the national anthem is played on his birthday and headlines announce every stage of his progress with more emphasis than they give to the deaths of a thousand people?"