Life in the royal nursery: growing up as a young prince or princess

A future monarch’s childhood is like no other. Whether it’s resting on a velvet cushion, receiving priceless gifts, or being defended by a Tae Kwon-Do trained nanny, we explore the strange realities of growing up in a palace

1983: Princess Diana, here with Prince Charles and baby William in Australia, insisted that her sons experience normality (Photo by Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The public life of a royal baby begins before it’s even born. Blossoming baby bumps are splashed across the pages of tabloids and glossy magazines, and within hours of their birth, the first images of the new prince or princess are printed—a tiny bundle lit by the flash of hundreds of frantically clicking cameras. This is the media-frenzied world into which a royal baby is born.

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As with most parents-to-be, the location of the royal infant’s birth is given careful consideration. In 1982, Prince William became the first direct heir to the throne to be born in hospital, breaking a centuries-old tradition for royal babies to be born behind palace walls.

Thankfully, for all concerned, home secretaries are no longer required to be present at the birth of a royal baby. Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks was present at the Queen’s birth in 1926, but the custom ended in 1936 with the birth of the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra.

1948: Prince Charles rests in the arms of royal midwife Sister Helen Rowe. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1948: Prince Charles rests in the arms of royal midwife Sister Helen Rowe. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

If this sounds like an uncomfortable situation for all involved, spare a thought for Mary of Modena, the wife of King James II. When the couple’s son James Francis Edward was born at St James’s Palace in 1688, a reported 42 politicians and public figures were called upon to confirm that the baby had not been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan or through a secret door.

It was the indomitable Queen Victoria who ended the veritable circus of witnesses present at a royal birth – in 1894, she determined that, for the birth of her great-grandson, the future Edward VIII, the presence of the home secretary would be enough.

An army of servants

Once at home in the royal nursery, young princes and princesses were traditionally brought up by a host of staff. They would have little contact with their parents, and would often be housed in an entirely different location—when she was just three months old, the future Elizabeth I was set up with her own household at Hatfield House, north of London. There, an army of servants, governesses, ladies in waiting and even official cradle rockers tended to her every need.

For centuries royal mothers relinquished most of their maternal responsibilities, including feeding. A team of wet nurses was employed to keep the new royal tummy full, ensuring the queen could get back to her most important task, conceiving another heir. In the 18th century, breast milk (particularly colostrum) was considered to be harmful to babies, so many new-borns were fed with animal milk, or honey and sugar water for around a month. It was also believed that breast milk would curdle if marital relations were resumed before the baby was weaned.

1894: Victoria with her son, grandson, and great-grandson, the future Edward VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
1894: Victoria with her son, grandson, and great-grandson, the future Edward VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Queen Victoria found the idea of breastfeeding repulsive, but some of her own children were more open to the idea and chose to secretly feed their own babies, much to their mother’s disgust. The present Queen is also said to have been breastfed and did so with her own children. By the 1980s, Princess Diana also insisted on a hands-on approach, nursing both her sons herself.

Protecting young royals

Growing up in the royal nursery, with all the luxuries and privileges that money and influence can provide, may look like an idyllic life, but protecting royal children from intense media and public scrutiny, while preparing them for a life in the spotlight, is a constant juggling act. Modern royals, such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have chosen to bring up their children away from the media glare. Royal nannies have used various techniques to keep their charges out of sight – from learning Tae Kwon-Do to ward off would-be kidnappers to evasive driving manoeuvres to avoid the ever-present paparazzi.

A life completely out of the public eye is virtually impossible for a royal baby, such is the degree of public interest. Recent generations of royals have made conscious efforts to keep their offspring’s childhoods as far out of the limelight as possible. But past royals, who lacked social media as a way of sharing updates about their children, relied on public appearances to reassure their subjects that the heir to the throne was healthy and thriving. Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Tudor king Henry VIII, had a special velvet cushion made so that her baby (the future Queen Elizabeth I) could lay next to her while she conducted court business. From 1830, when the future Queen Victoria became heir presumptive, she was taken on several arduous tours around the British Isles in order to meet her future subjects.

A taste of normality

Fortunately, royal children are no longer paraded around as examples of their parents’ fertility. Instead, they are encouraged to discover more about the country they live in and may eventually reign. Diana’s insistence that William and Harry experience normality extended as far as a trip on the London Underground, queuing for hamburgers in McDonald’s and taking William to a homeless shelter at the age of 12. The young prince is also said to have been the first royal baby to have worn disposable diapers.

Despite attempts to introduce a semblance of normality to their lives, a royal childhood is one of undeniable privilege and luxury. An exhibition at Buckingham Palace in 2014 offered a rare peek into the life of young royals over the past 250 years – from a lavish velvet walking suit belonging to the future George V and a replica of the thatched cottage given to Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) for her sixth birthday by the people of Wales, to Prince Andrew’s miniature Aston Martin replica (modelled on James Bond’s classic DB5 car) complete with electric water jets shooting from the rear reflectors, a pop-up bulletproof shield and rotating license plates.

2015: Princess Charlotte enjoys playing with a cuddly toy in Anmer Hall, the family’s country home, in a photo taken by her mom. (Photo by Getty Images)
2015: Princess Charlotte enjoys playing with a cuddly toy in Anmer Hall, the family’s country home, in a photo taken by her mom. (Photo by Getty Images)

Today’s young royals are no different. Since his birth in 2013, Prince George has been showered with gifts from all over the world, including a wooden rocking horse from the then president Barack Obama, partly made from a branch of an oak tree which once stood on the White House’s lawn.

Looking to the future

Extravagant gifts aside, the lives of modern royal children look a great deal happier than those of their forebears. A combination of careful planning, parental determination and lessons learned from the past has meant that George, Charlotte, Louis and their future cousin can enjoy relatively carefree childhoods before the weight of royal responsibility comes to rest firmly on their shoulders.

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Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed magazine