Don't forget the spare heirs

The onerous task facing all royal couples: produce ‘an heir and a spare’


Until Britain’s present queen changed the law of succession so that girls have equal precedence to boys, every monarch in history has wanted a male heir to inherit the throne (plus at least one spare in case of accidents). Little wonder that the firstborn son has always been the focus of most attention when it comes to their upbringing and education: after all, they have to be trained to be king one day.

Even though she doted upon her firstborn son, Robert ‘Curthose’, Matilda of Flanders gave her husband William the Conqueror three other boys. Each of them benefited from an exemplary upbringing for a royal prince, which included military training as well as academic subjects. As a result, the three ‘spare heirs’ all grew into highly competent and formidable young men. By contrast, Robert was feckless, hot-headed and intemperate. He later led a rebellion against his father, which failed miserably and resulted in William depriving him of his inheritance. Upon the latter’s death, Robert became Duke of Normandy but his younger brother William Rufus secured the greater prize of being King of England. When Rufus was assassinated in England’s New Forest several years later, his youngest brother Henry seized the throne, becoming the most successful of all William’s sons.

How not to do it

England’s most famous king, Henry VIII, was never destined for the throne. That honour was reserved for his elder brother, Arthur, upon whose upbringing his father Henry VII lavished great attention and expense, crafting him into a leader of men. By contrast, Henry was spoilt by his mother, Elizabeth of York, and allowed to indulge whatever pastimes he wished. Arthur’s death thrust Henry into the spotlight, but by then his character was — fatally — set.

A statue of the English queen Matilda in Luxembourg Garden, Paris. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Put your spouse first and your children second

Loving and respectful royal parents create sensible princes and princesses

At the heart of some of the most successful royal parenting examples in history is a strong and stable marriage. Take Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, for example. Their marriage, in 1328, was made for love as well as policy. It produced nine children who survived into adulthood. Having learned from their parents’ example, most of these children went on to have long and happy marriages.

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Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was another great love match, and despite raising their large brood amid the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, they created a happy and nurturing environment for their children. The ill-fated Charles I might have been a failure as king but he was a devoted husband to Henrietta Maria, and together they raised a brood of happy, healthy children who included two future kings.

Queen Victoria was famously devoted to her husband, Prince Albert, and although they doted on their children, their love for each other always remained paramount. Putting one’s spouse ahead of one’s children in this way seems to have ensured that the latter grow up as grounded and (for the most part) sensible individuals, with an excellent role model for their own marriage as adults. But with most royal marriages being made for politics rather than love, this was one parenting tactic that was not always easy to achieve.

How not to do it

In the early years of her marriage, Eleanor of Aquitaine was passionately in love with her husband Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou (later Henry II) and bore him eight children. But their tempestuous relationship eventually turned sour and in 1173 Eleanor supported a revolt by one of their sons against her husband. Henry had her locked up as a punishment and she was only released upon his death 16 years later.

Eleanor of Aquitaine supported a revolt by one of their sons against her husband, Henry II. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Eleanor of Aquitaine supported a revolt by one of their sons against her husband, Henry II. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Protect royal children from the glare of publicity

Many monarchs court popularity, but too much exposure is damaging and counter-productive

When it was announced in December 2012 that the Duchess of Cambridge was expecting her first child, the world’s media was thrown into a frenzy. Since marrying Prince William in April 2011, speculation had been rife about when she would become pregnant — particularly as William’s mother Princess Diana conceived just 12 weeks after her wedding.

But William has always been determined to protect his family from the paparazzi, who, it was claimed, had hounded his mother to her death. There was, however, little that he could do to prevent the media circus setting up camp outside the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London, as well as at Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, during the weeks leading up to the birth. When the duchess was admitted on 22 July in the early stages of labour, the world held its breath. But she and William managed to conceal the birth of their son George for a few hours before it was officially announced.

Although they dutifully presented him to the world the next day, they subsequently made it clear that their son would be raised away from the glare of publicity. The same is true of their daughter Charlotte, born in May 2015, and their son Louis, born in April 2018. Safeguarding the privacy of their children in this way will help ensure that they enjoy as normal an upbringing as possible.

How not to do it

Henry VIII was so convinced that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, would give him a son that when she was expecting their first child, he prepared to shout it from the rooftops. As well as planning jousts and fireworks, he instructed his scribes to draft letters announcing the birth of a ‘prince’ to all the heads of state in Europe. When Anne gave birth on 7 September, the scribes had to go back to those letters and add ‘ss’ to the word. She had given Henry another useless girl. The jousts and fireworks were cancelled immediately.


Take time to cherish your children

Royal children, like the rest of us, need the loving attention of their parents

Most royal children had little contact with their parents (at least by today’s standards), but there were some notable exceptions. Far from being ashamed of her daughter Elizabeth (who should have been a boy), Anne Boleyn so doted on her that she had a special velvet cushion made so that the baby could lay next to her when she was conducting court business.

Two centuries later, George III was similarly besotted with his children – all 15 of them. He established Buckingham Palace as a happy family home, and he also took his growing brood on regular visits to the country retreats of Kew and Richmond. The king never allowed his royal duties to disrupt his family time and he favoured an informal and relaxed domestic life. To the dismay of some royal courtiers, who were more accustomed to displays of grandeur and strict protocol, he was often spotted playing with his small children on the carpet. Unusually for a monarch, he was especially fond of his girls, whereas his sons later proved something of a disappointment. His wife Charlotte was painstaking in her concern for the children’s welfare and education, but was a much less relaxed parent, displaying little spontaneous affection.

After the turbulent marital history of so many of his predecessors, King George’s subjects loved him for his devotion to his family and his simple, moral principles. He gave his children an upbringing that many other royal offspring would probably have envied.

How not to do it

George III’s father, Prince Frederick, suffered a horrendous upbringing at the hands of his parents, George II and Queen Caroline. They despised their eldest son and left him behind in Hanover when they accompanied his grandfather George I to take up the British throne. Frederick was eventually allowed to join his family, but they made no secret of their loathing for him, and his mother once famously declared that he made her want to ‘vomit’.


Appoint the right nursery staff

When royal children are raised away from their parents, faithful retainers are crucial

For centuries, protocol dictated that royal offspring should be raised not by their parents, but by a team of nurses, governesses and tutors. Often, royal babies were sent away from court in early infancy and established in their own households. This was the case with the future Elizabeth I, packed off to Hatfield House, north of London, at just three months with a veritable army of attendants.

They included Blanche Parry, a young Welsh lady given the task of overseeing the four ‘rockers’ of the infant princess’s cradle. This was an important task, for it would keep the child quiet and amenable, and ensure favourable reports of her could be sent back to court. She quickly struck up a close relationship with Elizabeth and doted upon the child. She sang her to sleep with Welsh lullabies and taught her the rudiments of that language as she grew older. She accompanied Elizabeth on her frequent changes of residence during her childhood and provided much-needed stability in a fragile and turbulent world, particularly after the sudden loss of her mother, Anne Boleyn.

The young princess came to trust in her steady kindness and unswerving loyalty, which provided a benchmark against which all of her other attendants were measured (and usually fell short). Blanche devoted the rest of her life to Elizabeth, and the latter kept her old childhood nurse as one of her closest companions when she became queen. By Blanche’s death in 1590, she had served Elizabeth for 56 years.

How not to do it

Another member of Elizabeth’s childhood staff was Katherine (Kat) Astley, her governess. Like Blanche, Kat was utterly devoted to the princess, but she was notoriously impetuous and indiscreet. When Elizabeth was a teenager, Kat foolishly encouraged the flirtatious advances of the philandering Thomas Seymour towards her young charge. In 1549 that mistake led Kat to a short spell of imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Princess Elizabeth, later Queen', c1547, (1902). Portrait of the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) aged 14, before she was expected to be queen. Illustration, after a picture in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, from Henry VIII, by A F Pollard, published by Goupil and Co, (London, New York, Paris, Edinburgh, 1902). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Help children learn through play

Fun and productive activities help royal children become rounded individuals

In stark contrast to her own childhood, Queen Victoria ensured that all nine of her children enjoyed a happy upbringing. The best times were spent at Osborne House, their “quiet and retired” home on the Isle of Wight. Here, Albert built a ‘Swiss Cottage’ for his young children. Hidden in the woods on the Osborne estate, this wooden chalet became the children’s favourite retreat. Prince Albert intended it as a place where his offspring could play at being adults and learn the skills he believed would make them better people and rulers.

The older boys, Bertie and Alfred, helped lay the foundations for the cottage. Victoria proudly noted in her journal that Alfred had “worked as hard and steadily as a regular labourer”, and he was paid by Albert at the going rate. Meanwhile, the princesses learned how to bake and would often serve tea to their parents and guests. They had a well-furnished kitchen, and ran a toy grocer’s shop stocked with basics and exotic spices. They also kept accounts which their father reviewed. Each child had their own garden plot where they tended fruit, vegetables and flowers using miniature tools and their own monogrammed wheelbarrows. The produce was assessed by the under-gardener and, if good enough, Albert would pay the market rate to the child who had grown it.

Victoria and Albert’s children cherished such happy memories of Swiss Cottage that, when they were all grown up, they returned with their own children.

How not to do it

Victoria’s own childhood was, as she put it, “rather melancholy”. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, was extremely protective, and Victoria was raised largely isolated from other children under the ‘Kensington System’, an elaborate set of rules and protocols. Victoria was obliged to share a bedroom with her mother, and was only allowed to see people deemed suitable. Even by the standards of royal childhood, it was a restricted and stifling existence, and one that Victoria rebelled against as soon as she became queen.


Keep in touch with the real world

Growing up in a rarified atmosphere can mean monarchs are unable to relate to people

Diana broke the mould of royal motherhood, as well as of being a princess. From the very start, she was determined to give her boys as ‘normal’ an upbringing as possible. Unlike every royal mother before her, Diana insisted upon a hospital birth for both her sons, William and Harry, rather than giving birth at home as was the tradition for royal wives. All subsequent royal mothers have followed suit. As well as being the first royal baby to be born in hospital, Prince William was also the first to be taken on a royal trip. Diana would not hear of leaving him behind, not least because she was breast-feeding — another first for a royal wife.

Diana’s quest for normality continued as her boys grew up. She would take them to school and collect them whenever she could. She took them for fun days out to places such as Thorpe Park, a popular theme park, and organised children’s parties for them. On one famous occasion, she took them on the London Underground to Piccadilly Circus and caught the bus back to Kensington Palace. She also took them to McDonald’s, but insisted that they wait in line like everyone else.

Prince Charles, too, was a more hands-on father than his predecessors. He attended his sons’ births and was not averse to changing the occasional nappy. He and Diana ensured William and Harry would grow up as grounded young men, despite their status — one of the most successful examples of royal parenting in history.

How not to do it

James I (James VI in Scotland) and Anne of Denmark are among the worst examples of royal parents. They invested little time or attention in their children, consigning them instead to all the strict protocols and formality of a royal upbringing. This had disastrous repercussions for their second son, the future Charles I, who grew up with an unpredictable temper and a dangerously exaggerated sense of entitlement. The rest is history.

An illustration of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James VI and I, c1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Encourage sibling rivalry

A competitive atmosphere helps mould ambitious and capable leaders

Although this flies in the face of modern parenting advice, the need to produce a brood of highly capable, ambitious and authoritative heirs to strengthen the dynasty inspired many royal parents to foster an atmosphere of competitiveness in the nursery.

Regardless of their place in the order of succession, most royal children were given an exemplary education. Even if they were not destined for the throne, princes were expected to play an active role in war, politics or the church when they reached maturity, while their sisters were groomed to make prestigious political marriages. Royal nurseries were therefore often hothouses of learning, with each sibling trying to outdo the other in accomplishments. The fact that some royal children — notably ‘Bloody’ Mary I and Elizabeth I — were set up in separate establishments fostered an even greater sense of rivalry between them.

Boys were encouraged to compete in the field of combat. This paid dividends for Edward IV, Richard III and their two brothers, who had battled to outdo each other as children, but whose combined military prowess as adults secured victory for the House of York in the Wars of the Roses. The warlike sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine fought each other as both children and adults, but two of them went on to become kings of England, ensuring that their formidable mother’s legacy lived on for generations.

How not to do it

There is a fine line between healthy sibling rivalry and all-out civil war, as William the Conqueror would discover. In the closing years of his reign, all three of his sons were at such loggerheads that they threatened to destroy the Anglo-Norman kingdom that he had fought so hard to establish.


This article first appeared in the Royal Dynasties bookazine


Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.