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With Lilibet and Archie, Harry and Meghan Aim to Break the Cycle of Painful Royal Parenting

Hello, Lilibet. Welcome to California.

As the first American-born Windsor you will be very lucky. You are the first of the bloodline to be born well clear of the usual royal family regime of birthing and child rearing–something that for good reason your father has been determined his children should be spared from; not to mention your mother.

I suspect, however, that your dad wasn’t entirely aware of how far back in the history of British royal dynasties the problem goes when he told the podcaster Dax Shepard, “It’s a lot of genetic pain and suffering that gets passed on.”

He was struggling to relate his own childhood problems to those suffered by his father, Prince Charles: “I started to piece it together and go, ‘okay, so this is where he went to school, this is what happened…so that means he’s treated me the way he was treated.’”

It’s been alleged that your great grandmother, the Queen, whose childhood name you have been given (alongside your grandma, Diana), and Charles were less than happy with Harry’s critique of their joint parenting record. That’s a bit rich, since there is no better witness than Charles himself to describe what he went through. For years Charles has complained openly about how little he saw of his parents, that he was just an item in a daily routine, half an hour after breakfast, maybe a quick peck on the cheek at lunchtime and half an hour before bed.

And it is widely known that Charles’ own granny, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was troubled by the way Charles was being raised. In 1961, she wrote to the Queen (to avoid face-to-face unpleasantness they tended to send notes to each other) of the risks of sending him to Gordonstoun, the rigorously spartan academy chosen by his father, who had gone there himself and, being the Alpha Male he was, thrived. She said, “He might as well be at school abroad. He would be terribly cut off and lonely up in the far north.”

(She wanted him to go to Eton, virtually within hailing distance of Windsor Castle, where Will and Harry were later sent.)

In 1994, Charles unburdened himself, proving that granny had been right. He told his authorized biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, that he remembered his time at Gordonstoun for the bullying he suffered and the ”crushing loneliness.” And he said his mother’s remoteness left him “emotionally estranged” from his parents. He yearned for affection that they were “unable or unwilling to offer.”

He told Dimbleby that the closest relationship he had was with his nanny, Mabel Anderson.

In fact, there is nothing new about attributing the character shortcomings of English princes (and monarchs) to the treatment they got as children. The habit predates the Windsors by at least a thousand years.

One of the first lessons on the royal bloodline that I remember receiving at school began with a monarch whose title really nailed his problem: King Ethelred the Unready. He reigned from 978-1013, a time when the Anglo-Saxon nation state was very insecure. The fecund and verdant island of the Anglo-Saxons was very ripe for rape and plundering and the Vikings were duly raping and plundering.

The king was, therefore, required to be sharply alert to the threats of invasion, but, alas, he was too often a wimp—and all too frequently caught unready.

However, according to the medieval chroniclers on whose opinions we rely, it was his mother’s fault. She thought Ethelred such a whinging weakling as a child that she regularly beat, him her weapon of choice being candles. As a result, for the rest of his life the poor guy was so fearful of candles that “he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence.”

Royal children born in a castle or a palace came into a world often riven with blood feuds, the claims of rival heirs, and other assorted dysfunctions.

To be fair, it can’t be said that Charles is unready. He’s all too ready, he’s been waiting to ascend the throne so long that at times in his behavior and manner he seems older than his mother, to have floated back into some haven of atavism that is far more agreeable than the twenty-first century. If he’s not a wimp he’s certainly carrying the mental scars of his childhood.

Nonetheless, looked at in the context of what went on in the royal courts over the centuries, Charles had it relatively easy. Royal children born in a castle or a palace came into a world often riven with blood feuds, the claims of rival heirs, and other assorted dysfunctions.

To protect them, the babies were sent away far from court to lesser royal homes to be raised not by their parents but by a squad of nurses, governesses and tutors. The most remarkable of these was a young woman from Wales recruited by the infamously bloody Tudor court, Blanche Parry.

When Anne Boleyn incurred the wrath of her husband, Henry VIII, by delivering a daughter and not the son he demanded, the baby Princess Elizabeth, at the age of three months, was dispatched to a series of distant refuges, always under the immediate care of Parry.

After Anne lost her head with one sweep of the executioner’s sword—as all readers of Hilary Mantel will know, Henry believed the falsehood that he had been cuckolded—Parry gradually became a surrogate mother and confidant of Elizabeth’s and remained close to her after she became the formidable Virgin Queen, trusted and indispensable for 56 years.

Amid the swirling paranoia of these royal courts, the delivery chamber could become the center of bizarre conspiracy theories.

The most deliciously bizarre of these came in 1688. King James II, in a fervidly Protestant nation, had married an Italian Catholic, Mary of Medina. He needed an heir, but Mary had 10 pregnancies that ended in miscarriages. Rumors spread that the royal couple were staging a fake pregnancy and birth—at the time of delivery a substitute (and Catholic) newborn would be smuggled in a warming pan through a secret door into the birthing chamber in St. James’s Palace.

This was “The Big Steal” of the day, spread in pamphlets and gossip and—just like today—proving that people will believe anything if it confirms their prejudices.

To disprove the rumors, the King assembled at least 42 people in the birthing chamber to act as witnesses and sign affidavits that the child, a boy, was legitimate.

What was remarkable, considering that this was a patriarchy, is that the most valued witnesses were the women who supervised the birth, the midwife and nurses. Alas, the son, James, never became King because his father was soon deposed, replaced in “The Glorious Revolution” by William III.

What’s amazing is that delivering babies within palace walls remained the norm until, in 1982, when another (theoretically) future King William, otherwise known as Wills, was born to Princess Diana in St. Mary’s Hospital, London—with Charles in the delivery room. (His father, Prince Philip, had stuck to a royal tradition of not witnessing births by playing squash while Charles was delivered, but in 1964 Philip ended that tradition by being present at Prince Edward’s birth in the Palace.)

Giving birth in a public hospital was just one of the ways in which Diana ripped up the royal rearing playbook. She was, inarguably, the greatest change agent in the Windsor nursery culture.

And so, Lilibet, we come to someone who will be one of the most important people in your life whom you will never know, your grandmother Diana, after whom you are also named. When William was born she said, “I felt the whole country was in labor with me.”

That kind of instant empathy was her genius, her defining quality. Giving birth in a public hospital was just one of the ways in which Diana ripped up the royal rearing playbook. She was, inarguably, the greatest change agent in the Windsor nursery culture. As William himself said of his mother later, “she understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls.”

Before she married Charles, Diana had worked as a nanny and in a nursery school. She had no time for the idea that kids came second to public duty, or for the uptight Windsor repression of personal feelings in public. She meant it when she said, “I want my children to have an understanding of people’s emotions, people’s insecurities, people’s distress, and people’s hopes and dreams. I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people.”

You’ll find out, Lilibet, that there’s a lot of your grandmother in your father. He’s struggled with what that entails: the gentle, recurring maternal voice from his childhood, all too cruelly terminated when she died, the voice and the spectacular personality that was too strong to be imprisoned within those Windsor walls—a suffering that, blessedly, you will never have to endure.

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