Prince Charles, heir to the British throne riding in his pram pushed by his nanny, Mabel Anderson, 1950. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images; Gilded Youth by Tom Quinn; King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret pose as a family on the King's coronation day, May 12, 1937. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Bringing Up Royal Babies: How the British Monarchy Got its Stiff Upper Lip
Author Tom Quinn delves into child rearing in 'Gilded Youth' to explain why generations of royals cling to traditions forged in medieval times / BY Leanne Delap / January 31st, 2024
We have all ventured opinions on how the upbringing of British royals created the dynamics at play today, from sensitive Charles, wounded by parental formality, to Will and Harry going to McDonald’s with Diana. But what do we really know? That is the question veteran royal journalist Tom Quinn set out to answer in Gilded Youth.
Quinn, the author of five previous books on the Royal Family, concentrates on child-rearing, and he goes all the way back to the Plantagenets in the 12th century. But it was the first head of the House of Windsor, King George V, who set the trajectory for generations of children to come during his rule from 1910 to 1936. After Quinn recounts the dethroning and decapitation of many crowned heads of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, he writes that George V “decided to become dull and dutiful.” That’s how modern royalty came to embody the very idea of Britishness, with their manners and traditions frozen in time.
Then there’s the matter of lifespan. Back in the 11th century, Quinn notes in Gilded Youth, only one in four children made it to adulthood, so the royals “hoped to produce a tough adult very fast.” Plus, the boys had to be battle ready, which is where the military tradition among males in the royal line originated. Today’s royals “have a strange way of raising their children, as if they were still living in medieval Britain,” Quinn says in a phone interview from his home in England. The military connection is real: royal heirs are raised to defend the realm, even if the King today is unlikely to lead any charges into battle.
Their standoffish nature is part of the basic training. Indeed, chilliness has permeated the entire British aristocracy, where children are seldom seen or heard, and shipped off for training and “forming” by professionals. The royal children know they are special from a young age, given they live in palaces, surrounded by servants. But Quinn says it is “a world that is very, very old-fashioned,” where all the dirty work is done by nannies, since looking after babies is seen “as a menial task.” The problem is, “in farming out the early child care to strangers, instead of toughness and confidence, you can produce someone like Charles, who is overly sensitive.” Not to mention there is another strange pattern at play when it comes to male heirs: “Going back to George I [who ruled from 1714 to 1727], there is a history there of monarchs not really liking their own sons.” It is telling, Quinn says, “that the two most successful monarchs, the Elizabeths, were both women.”
The first part of Gilded Youth is a deep dive into a thousand years of royal houses, an academic exercise where the author plucks childhood experiences from extant sources, like The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians and Mammoth Book of Eccentrics and Oddballs. It gets more textured with the reign of Victoria, from 1819 to 1901, who had nine children. (That chapter is titled, “My daughters have turned into cows.”) “So terrified was she of the appalling behaviour of the monarchs who came before her that she determined only the strictest upbringing would prevent history repeating itself in her children, especially as she believed to a large extent that character was inherited,” Quinn says of Victoria.
When he moves on to the rearing of Elizabeth and Margaret, Quinn is particularly interested in “below-stairs” gossip, believing that nannies, and friends of nannies, are goldmines of information. The modern sections take on a lively, gossipy vibe, since Quinn has inside connections (his previous books include Mrs. Keppel, about King Edward VII’s mistress and muse, and Kensington Palace: An Intimate Memoir from Queen Mary to Meghan Markle).
There is a disconnect here, because Elizabeth’s childhood was really quite happy, and for the first 10 years of her life she was a pampered princess, of whom little was expected. Quinn notes she was never meant to be a sovereign; her uncle, who was briefly Edward VIII, was first in line to the throne, so he was expected to produce the heir. When he abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, his brother, Albert, was crowned George VI, making Elizabeth the heir and Princess Margaret the spare.
The whole family was thrust into a new reality. They were, uncharacteristically for British monarchs, a close-knit unit, and they often referred to themselves as “us four.” Queen Elizabeth wasn’t inclined to reinvent the parenting system. “She simply saw no reason to do things differently,” says Quinn. “It worked for her.”
There were attempts to modernize with the Queen’s second set of children. Quinn writes: “For Elizabeth, trying new methods with any further children was always going to be difficult with a husband who thought, as [her father] Prince Albert had thought, that the mere fact of being male meant that his choices were inherently, unquestionably, correct.” Thus young Andrew became a wholly different kind of troubled child, one who whacked at horses’ legs with sticks until the stable hands had to shower him in manure to stop his reign of terror. “From the outset,” Quinn writes, “Andrew seems to have imbibed a sense of his own importance that outweighed any of his siblings – partly no doubt this was simply innate, but perhaps, too, it was from the extra attention he received from his mother.”
Quinn also surveys the mostly unexceptional academic performances of heirs and spares to the throne in recent years, noting there is “intellectual lethargy” at play. Simply put: They don’t have to work that hard, because they aren’t going to be expelled. Hereditary privilege, he concludes, removes the drive to succeed. “You must realize royal children do nothing for themselves. They internalize the fact they are special from a young age. The whole world will defer to them.” The Queen was the one royal who keenly wanted more education, but since girls of her class weren’t sent to school, tutors came to her at home. Unlike her children, Elizabeth never had any formal schooling, or attained any grade levels.
The other tradition that has changed is the amount of face time heirs and spares get with their parents. Charles and Anne were lucky to see the Queen and Prince Philip for an hour each day, when they were presented, cleaned and starched, every evening. Memorably, Quinn retells the famous story about how Elizabeth shook three-year-old Charles’ hand in front of the cameras when they were reunited after a world tour. “For Charles, it was awful. He had a succession of nannies who only stayed short periods, and he never saw his mother.” So, when Charles became a parent, Quinn says he had difficulty showing emotion to his sons. Diana may have been “very affectionate with William and Harry” – a fact ingrained into her mythology – “but she was also a member of the aristocracy,” he says, “and employing staff for every aspect of childrearing was completely normal for her.”
The final two chapters of Gilded Youth, dedicated to the Waleses and the Sussexes, are the juiciest ones, which garnered tabloid headlines about Kate saying she wants a “normal childhood” for her children, but also “the luxuries and privileges of a royal upbringing” for them, and how Meghan “hated being a second-rate princess.” When it comes to Kate, a thoroughly middle-class woman who is the product of a normal childhood, Quinn says the idea that Prince George could be treated “like any other child” is simply not possible. “William knew Kate would change things” – but not too much – and “seems to be able to accept royal protocol and not rock the boat,” says Quinn. “She respects the traditions and the world within them. The late Queen admired Kate because she could accept the difficulties of royal life.”
On the other hand, Quinn predicts the hands-on parenting of Meghan and Harry will be worlds away from palace practices, given they renounced their royal roles and decamped to Montecito, Calif., where their friends include celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz, their neighbours are Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Jennifer Aniston, and their kids have had playdates with British comedian James Corden’s kids. For that reason, he believes Archie and Lilibet are destined for life in a different kind of spotlight, and will likely grow up to become media personalities. In the end, he suggests, the Sussex offspring are more likely to struggle with classic Hollywood children-of tropes – the “nepo” baby issues.
It is fashionable these days to blame parents for everything, or it certainly feels that way if you are one. But Quinn observes that many factors contribute to our personal grab-bags of neuroses and triggers, whether we are brought up with silver spoons in our mouths or tin cups in our hands. In the end, Royal families cling hard to tradition, “because they need to keep the magic alive,” says Quinn, “even if the magic is completely out of date.”