Mother’s Day is meant to be a celebration of mothers. But it often doubles as a celebration of the nuclear family.
Too often, contemporary culture neglects to acknowledge the importance of the extended family. There is one institution, however, that has a long tradition of recognizing that it takes a village to raise a child: the British royal family.
As I discuss in my new book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, the upbringing of a royal child has always included a wide circle of people including grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, tutors, nannies and governesses. In fact, royal parenting has acquired a negative reputation over the centuries because of how often kings and queens delegated the daily routine of childrearing to their extended family and household. But there’s another way of looking at this tradition: Royal children have had a large support system during both good times and difficult times.
Even the most dysfunctional royal families in history looked for support from their extended families. Henry II of England faced a revolt from his three older sons in the 12th century. Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, sided with her children, including Richard the Lionheart.
While much of the family was in conflict with one another, Henry and Eleanor’s three daughters—Matilda, Eleanor, Joanna, and their children—relied on their relations as a crucial source of support during difficult times. One of Matilda’s sons, future holy Roman emperor Otto IV, joined the household of his uncle Richard, who provided him with the land and income necessary to eventually become an influential political figure. Richard also stepped in to rescue his sister Joanna, queen of Sicily, after her husband died and the new king held her hostage. And when she was in her 70s, Eleanor of Aquitaine made a treacherous journey over the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain to visit her namesake daughter, queen Eleanor of Castile, and escort one of her granddaughters to Paris to become queen of France. And even a family famous for in-fighting—as portrayed in 1966 play and 1968 film The Lion in Winter—pulled together to ensure that the next generation was well-placed in the political elite of medieval Europe.
Centuries later, in 17th-century Europe, The Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil Wars cost monarchs their thrones and made the futures of royal children uncertain. Under these uncertain circumstances, a supportive circle of royal relatives and loyal staff was more essential than ever before.
Consider the story of the family of Charles I of England and Scotland. King Charles was beheaded in 1649, following his defeat during the English Civil Wars. His French wife, Henrietta Maria, had fled to the court of her nephew, Louis XIV in 1644 just after the birth of her youngest daughter Henrietta Anne . The infant was considered too young to travel so Henrietta Maria entrusted her to a governess, Lady Dalkeith, who eventually smuggled her out of England to France. Little Henrietta Anne, a toddler at the time she left England, nearly gave herself away by insisting that she was a princess to other people they met on the road. But Lady Dalkeith managed to organize a successful escape, and mother and daughter were reunited in Paris.
Charles I’s sister, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), also had a staff looking out for her children’s safety when she and her husband, Frederick, had to flee Prague during the Thirty Years’ War. In the chaos following Frederick’s defeat in battle, their baby son, Rupert, was nearly left behind. A court chamberlain stepped in to ensure that Rupert was aboard the last carriage leaving Prague castle.
In the 19th century, queen Victoria was a highly involved matriarch who expected to be consulted regarding the names, education and marital prospects of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Five of Victoria’s granddaughters married European monarchs, bringing English customs with them to Russia, Romania, Norway, Spain, and Greece when they married. This ensured that a generation of royal cousins across Europe grew up speaking English, celebrating Victorian-style Christmases, developing a taste for rice pudding, and wearing the sailor suits and white dresses that were fashionable at the time. This unified royal culture continued in Europe until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, when family cohesion broke down and the late Queen Victoria’s descendants went to war against each other.
In the 20th century, grandparents, nannies and governesses continued to serve as important sources of support for royal parents who were separated from their children by royal tours. Prince Charles developed a close relationship with his grandmother, the Queen Mother, while his parents, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, toured the Commonwealth for months at a time. Charles and Diana broke with tradition and brought their sons William and Harry on some of their royal tours—but the young princes still found their wider support system of staff and royal relatives valuable through the emotional turmoil caused by their parents’ divorce and Diana’s death in 1997.
And today, the Duchess of Cambridge—better known as Kate Middleton—has been careful to ensure that her children spend plenty of time with her Middleton relatives as well as the royal family. In 2015, Charles restored a treehouse that William had once received for his seventh birthday so that George could enjoy his father’s playhouse. And when Pippa Middleton gets married on May 20, Prince George and Princess Charlotte will be in the wedding party.
At a time when most advice for parents assumes that childrearing takes place within the nuclear family, the history of royal parenting affirms the value of large support system. For the past thousand years, royalty have recruited a wide circle of relatives, friends and staff to help raise their children. Today, George and Charlotte are growing up with the knowledge that they can count on their grandparents, godparents, friends and nannies, as well as their parents, to help them navigate the unique challenges of royal life.