While a young Queen Elizabeth was trying to balance the needs of church and state, a bunch of brilliant women ensured her young son was in good hands.
Against the odds
The fact that Prince Charles had some very tough early years, especially when he was bundled off to boarding school (where he was bullied – as well as beaten by some headmasters) is not under debate, but some say the criticism heaped on Queen Elizabeth over her perceived distant or “cold” relationship with her son is unfair.
As The Crown shows us, Princess Elizabeth – later Queen Elizabeth – prioritised her job above all because her country demanded it. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t enamoured with her little boy and thrilled to be a mum.
Apparently delighted that her firstborn was a darling little boy, she breastfed him for the first two months of his life (unlike Queen Victoria) until she came down with measles and was advised to stop.
The tyranny of distance
Once Charles was weaned, long separations followed as Elizabeth toured the Commonwealth and other neighbours, in the line of duty – and also followed her husband Philip across the globe, perhaps in a bid to keep their marriage as strong as possible. (Because allegedly wayward husband. And also zero possibility of separation or divorce if things got fraught.)
During this time apart, devoted family and staff stepped in to look after the young prince. Elizabeth was charged with an overwhelmingly demanding job and she called on all her resources to ensure her son and later her other children, were educated and cared for.
Still, many royal watchers were keen to criticise the Queen’s approach to parenting (while also expecting her to be a perfect and ever-present monarch).
When Elizabeth and Prince Philip returned from an almost six-month-long tour of the Commonwealth nations, Elizabeth famously greeted her children with a formal handshake. Charles was five at the time and Princess Anne just three.
The Queen’s onetime private secretary Martin Charteris noted Charles “must have been baffled by what a natural mother-son relationship was meant to be like.”
The Queen Mother
While the Queen was away or corgi-deep in work, the Queen Mother was at Charles’ beck and call. He visited his granny often at her home in Windsor Great Park, apparently sitting on her bed admiring the colours of her lipsticks or exploring the nearby Shaw Farm.
“My grandmother was the person who taught me to look at things,” Charles later said, crediting her for his interest in the arts. Insiders say the Queen Mother heaped the physical affection on Charles that he craved and that – in stark contrast to his dad – she encouraged his sensitive and compassionate nature.
While his sister, Princess Anne, shared a love of horse riding and fashion with her mum, Charles was different, fragile and sensitive. He craved something closer with the Queen.
The Queen, according to Lord Mountbatten, craved something closer too, but duty called so she did her best to ensure that others were giving Charles what he needed.
Lord Mountbatten noted that the Queen’s favourite night of the week was what he referred to as “Mabel’s night off”. Mabel Anderson was Charles and Anne’s nanny and was employed by the royal family from 1949 to 1981 with Charles describing her as “a haven of security, the great haven”.
“When Mabel was off duty, Elizabeth could kneel beside the bath, bathe her babies, read to them and put them to bed herself,” he explained.
The young Charles was home-schooled by governess Catherine Peebles (known as “Mipsy”) until he was eight. You can catch a glimpse of her in the clip below.
His dad then (as The Crown tells us) sent him off to school, first to Hill House School in London and then as a border at Cheam School, the oldest private school in England.
It was then decided that Charles should attend Gordonstoun, the remote school in north-east Scotland that Philip himself attended.
The Queen Mother wrote to her daughter, Queen Elizabeth begging her to intervene and keep the sensitive and creative boy closer to home, but it was to no avail.
“He will feel ‘terribly cut off and lonely in the far north,’ she told her daughter in one letter. “I suppose he will be taking his entrance exam for Eton soon. I do hope he passes because it might be the ideal school for one of his character and temperament.”
Prince Philip’s Charles-banishing wishes were upheld and he was forced to attend the school he hated. He apparently was heard complaining about this until well into his 60s – and later accused his father of “belittling” and “bullying” his son.
“Charles liked being amused rather than amusing himself. He was very responsive to kindness, but if you shouted at him he would draw back into his shell and you would be able to do nothing with him. Philip did a lot of shouting and relations between father and son were never the closest,” Catherine Peebles revealed.
It takes a village
When the Queen Mother died in 2002 at 101, Prince Charles was bereft. His grandmother had – with the help of Mipsy and Mabel – raised him, when his own mother was weighed down by her royal duties.
Interestingly the Queen Mother was apparently quite distant with her own children, but a generation made all the difference and Charles will tell anyone who’s ready to listen that his granny was the best.
“She was quite simply the most magical grandmother you could possibly have and I was utterly devoted to her.”
References and more reading on the young Prince Charles: