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The Youngest Royals

Bringing up baby is never simple, but the question of how to raise royal children has confounded generations of kings and queens.

The Three Youngest Daughters of King George III. c. 1785 Oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Three Youngest Daughters of King George III, by John Singleton Copley, c. 1785.

Poor George III had even more difficulty with his 15 children than he suffered with his 13 rebellious American colonies. While the newly independent Americans were wrestling with their Constitution in 1787, he was engaged in generational struggle with his oldest son, the future George IV, who spurned his advice on marriage, politics and good manners. Although loss of his colonies made George III angry, the disputes with his son helped to drive him insane, in which state he lived his last 10 years.

When Elizabeth I was born in 1533, her delighted mother, Anne Boleyn, sought to breast feed her. But Henry VIII forbade this because the cries of the infant might disturb his slumbers. He also thought it inconceivable that a queen should act as a wet-nurse. Queen Victoria’s long reign saw the final withdrawal of the monarchy from direction of governmental affairs. But at the same time, she became, far more than her immediate predecessors, the living symbol of the nation and of its best traditions. Thus Victoria sought to bring up the exuberant Edward VII according to an elaborate program of her own — albeit with limited success.

Today, Prince Charles and Princess Diana are raising their two sons according to an agenda that would have amazed Victoria. Charles’s sister, Princess Anne, and her husband, Mark Phillips, have created for their children lives that are almost entirely free from the shackles of 19th-century ideals of royal child rearing.

In short, the self-proclaimed intention of today’s royal parents is to bring up their children in as ordinary a fashion as possible. The great challenge of the past 10 years has been the reconciliation of the unrelenting public exposure which royal children experience and their parents’ ideals of ordinary upbringing.

H.R.H. Princess Anne with Zara and Peter at the Windsor Horse Trials. From The Youngest Royals, Britain/USA '87.

H.R.H. Princess Anne with Zara and Peter at the Windsor Horse Trials.

The first of the latest, youngest generation is Princess Anne’s son, Peter. He was born Nov. 15, 1977 and, at the time of his birth, was fifth in line to the throne. His father, who had been married to Princess Anne for four years when Peter was born, is not of noble blood and Peter was the first royal child to be born to a commoner in 500 years.

Princess Anne made clear that she would break new ground when she announced before the birth that she did not want a title created for her son, and has held to that decision. Peter Phillips is simply Master Peter Phillips. Though this sounds unremarkable to an American ear, it was deemed radical in Britain in 1977.

Princess Anne was undaunted in her determination to protect Peter from the rigors she associated with her own royal childhood. Whereas she had been educated within the confines of Buckingham Palace by a governess called Miss Peebles, and was first exposed to other children in her age group only as she neared her seventh birthday, Peter was exposed to other children almost at once. He was always permitted to visit other children and attended birthday parties and outings; he also invited schoolmates to his own house, where Princess Anne was a willing host to his friends.

Princess Anne’s daughter has grown up under similar circumstances. Zara was born in 1981; Princess Anne once more flouted tradition by choosing a name not because it had occurred in the family before, but simply because she liked it when her brother, Prince Charles, had suggested it.

Both children have had an athletic upbringing, which is characteristic of the British upper classes. But Peter and Zara have special circumstances to contend with. At a horse show several years ago, Peter was heard to ask his mother why all the press photographers were photographing him. Princess Anne paused and the friend with whom they were walking said, “They’re not photographing you; they’re photographing me.”

Princess Anne is not blind to reality, however. “It’s a question of balance,” she explains. “On the one hand, you say, ‘He must be allowed to live a normal life.’ On the other hand, he has to know that it is there — otherwise, the shock, when the limelight comes, is going to be awful… At the end of the day, people are always going to refer to him as ‘the grandson of the Queen’.”

H.R.H. the Princess of Wales holding Prince Harry; H.R.H. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, Zara and Peter, the children of Princess Anne, and Prince William. From The Youngest Royals, Britain/USA '87.

H.R.H. the Princess of Wales holding Prince Harry; H.R.H. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, Zara and Peter, the children of Princess Anne, and Prince William.

While the children of Princess Anne are of widespread interest, it is the family of Prince Charles and Princess Diana that lives in the brightest, most relentless spotlight in Britain; indeed, they are subjected to mass scrutiny more than any other family in the world. Diana has often said that motherhood is her top priority, and that being Princess of Wales must, in some cases, come second. Before she married Prince Charles, she was a school teacher, and the photographs of her that were splashed across the British press during the engagement almost always showed her with adoring young children.

And so it was not surprising that Princess Diana had her first child, Prince William, just 11 months after her wedding, on June 21, 1982. Both she and Princess Anne gave birth in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, but Princess Diana knew that her son was second in line to the throne, that he was by birth a Prince, and that he could not grow up innocent of the difficulties attendant on being a member of the Royal Family.

Prince Harry was born in 1984, and though the children occasionally have been left at home together, they have often accompanied their parents on their tours of duty. They were received with wild cheers by the people of Venice when Princess Diana took them there in 1985. Once more the balance between the ordinary, being with mother, and the extraordinary, being cheered by the populace and besieged by hundreds of photographers, was being delicately struck.

When William went off for his first day of school in 1985, he mixed with the other pupils in a perfectly ordinary way. He started at an ordinary school in the rather trendy London neighborhood called Notting Hill Gate, and is now attending a Montessori school (where, the press has it, he has been a bit naughty, resulting in notes to the parents from his teachers). In the end, of course, William’s education cannot be an ordinary education, for it must fit him to be King.

What, then, must a King learn these days? There is no doubt that, among many other things, he must learn an awareness of what ordinary people are like. The Royal Family no longer serves in a social vacuum unbridgeable to the common people.

There are many people in Britain who are deeply disturbed by the emergence of the human side of the Royal Family. If royal children are to be raised like ordinary children, then what, in the end, will distinguish them from those children? In a truly democratic society, those with hereditary rights have to prove, over and over again, their fitness for those privileges. If they become ordinary people — if they are stripped of their mystery — the reasoning goes, then surely they will be stripped of their distinguishing characteristics and it will be time for them to stop occupying the attention and the capital of the British people.

Peter and Zara need not worry about these questions. The allowances they may draw from the Royal Family probably will be negligible, and as they grow older, they will interest the public less and less.

But for William and Harry, there are great questions to be answered as they grow older. Their mother’s affection, delightful though it may be for them, cannot and should not be their top priority as Princes. Their grandmother has held the love of the British people since she ascended the throne; she has been a force of continuity in a country that loves tradition, bridging the discrepancies between life under one government and life under another. Her keen sense of the appropriate and her clarity of thought have enabled her to bring grace to the most awkward situations. Most importantly, she has given Britain, in its post-Empire years, a much-needed sense of its own magnificence and dignity.

Prince Charles’s high seriousness seems to fit him for a similarly important role in the life of his country. Only time will tell whether the double message of ordinary humanity and of royal purpose that is being communicated to his children will fit them to carry on when he is no longer able to do so.