Waterloo Region Record

A look at 500 years of horrible parenting


In his fifth book on the British royals, Tom Quinn turns his attention to child-rearing, sailing through 500 years of horrible parenting, from the Plantagenets to the Cambridges.

As bizarre as some practices may seem — like having your children, whom you might see once a day or less, raised by employed staff, then sent to live away from home (with other families or in later centuries, to school) at age seven, or teaching them “field sports” that include being “blooded” after their first killing of a fox or stag — Quinn is fascinated by how many antique customs endure. Princes William and Harry were blooded, despite their mother hating blood sports.

Cool, distant, vindictive if crossed: these words pretty much define royal parenting. That “despite its ubiquity, this was a practice that astonished foreigners.” In a late 15th-century document translated in 1846, an unnamed Italian nobleman, while visiting England, wrote to ambassador Andrea Trevisano. “The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children … at the age of seven or nine years … they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of others.”

Though girls had it worse — the assumption being that a dynastic marriage was their only fate — Quinn also makes the point that royal daughters might be the fittest for the crown, since the most successful monarchs have been Elizabeths I and II. In our time, Princess Anne appears as an aggressive and bullying child, in contrast to her shy, sensitive older brother.

A shocking number of the Hanoverian royal line, beginning with George I, actively hated their firstborn sons, an attitude returned by the sons, with challenging or louche behaviour. Even George III, who loved his children, seemed to have no control over their characters as they grew into adults. Intermarriage with cousins didn’t help, says Quinn, and physical characteristics like bow-legs and short stature were passed on through the generations.

Queen Victoria, for instance, was a tiny but powerful mother and blamed her son Bertie’s behaviour (Quinn calls him a sociopath) for her husband’s early death, an attitude embraced by the Queen Mother, who blamed Edward VIII’s selfish abdication for her husband’s death at age 56, despite his 50-cigarette-a-day habit. Quinn’s descriptions, many quoted from Victoria’s own diary, reveal her unrelenting interference in the lives of the many children she frankly hated bearing. Quinn observes, “It wasn’t just recalcitrant sons who were treated harshly — Bertie’s sister Princess Alice was whipped for lying, Vicky was condemned as sly and devious.”

The practice of handing children over to unvetted nannies is one Quinn raises more than once — most shockingly with Bertie’s nanny who, after he was grown, slit the throats of six of her seven children. With some exceptions, few Hanoverians proved clever students in their palace nurseries. Some had tantrums and smashed the furniture, like spoiled rock stars. Yet despite poor grades, King Charles III, after enduring the tough regime at his hypermasculine father’s beloved Gordonstoun School, was accepted into Cambridge. Quinn tells us that Prince William studied hard for his three A levels — getting an A, B and C — and chose St. Andrews in Scotland because it was relatively far from the spotlight. Yet sons were — and are — expected to join the military, just in case, as in medieval times, they are called upon to defend the kingdom.

Quinn does present some fascinating history, while pressing his point about the endurance of antique child-rearing methods. When a 54-year-old obscure Protestant German prince was offered the British throne in 1741, the soon-tobe George I happily accepted the wealth and status that came with the job.

Having little real power meant that royals performed public duties but were free to rule domestically — or not. Quinn opines that the husbands of Victoria and Elizabeth II both resented their limitations as mere consorts, so their wives allowed them free reign with their children’s education, often with disappointing results.

Despite old-fashioned traditions, royal children grow up fully aware of their wealth and status. Keeping her H.R.H title and income meant more, in the end, to Princess Margaret than her love for the dashing, divorced Captain Peter Townsend. When she asked her sister, Queen Elizabeth, for permission to marry a divorced man, Quinn tells us, Margaret said no, since it would mean renouncing her royal title. Among Quinn’s gossipy anecdotes is one from a classmate remembering “timid” Prince Charles, who had “the girls queuing up to sleep with him.” The attraction was neither his charm nor his sense of humour. As one girl confessed, she’d rather sleep with Mick Jagger, but Charles was “a very good second best.” Regarding Charles’ disastrous union with Diana Spencer, Quinn calls it “a marriage created according to rules that would not have been out of place 800 years earlier.”

All this delving into the lives of youthful royals becomes rather icky when Quinn speculates about the child-rearing being practised by 21st-century royals. Monarchists or not, this book leaves us wishing these children at least a modicum of privacy.






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