On July 22 Prince George turns 10. It’s a milestone birthday not just for the double-digit status, but because it takes the golden-haired eldest Wales son closer to his destiny in a year when everything is changing for his family.
George’s parents are now The Prince and Princess of Wales, titles that come with huge responsibilities and an increased workload. His grandfather is now King and George and his two siblings have become the focal point for the future of the monarchy, their every move scrutinised, commented on and chipped away at on social media.
When I was watching the young Prince hanging on to his grandpa’s robes, nervous but perfect as a pageboy at the Coronation on May 6 in a set-piece display of regal pomp and ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder if in that moment the terrifying reality that this would someday be him flashed into George’s mind. He would be crowned. He would be draped in cloth of gold as the world watched on. He would dedicate his life to God and his people.
And if he did sense that – as I’m sure his father, William, was also pondering on that day in Westminster Abbey – how did it make George feel? It’s a lot for one so young. Protecting George, Charlotte and Louis from their accident of birth is something both Catherine and William take very seriously.
Being born royal comes with a pile of privileges and precedencies – palaces to run around in, a lifestyle the rest of us can only dream of, carriages to ride through the streets in – but it’s also a tough gig for those who are as close in line to the throne as these three siblings are. This is a gilded cage with significant downsides.
According to royal biographer Andrew Morton, Prince William believed he was like any other – albeit aristocratic – kid until he went to school. “His innocence of his position was soon ended by fellow pupils who left him in no doubt who he was,” he says.
For George, news that he would be monarch one day was reportedly saved until he was seven years old. In his book Battle of Brothers, Robert Lacey conjectures, “Sometime around the boy’s seventh birthday in the summer of 2020 it is thought that his parents went into more detail about what the little prince’s life of future royal ‘service and duty’ would particularly involve.”
In contrast, King Charles was four when he attended his mother’s coronation and from that moment his childhood changed forever. Elizabeth II threw herself into the life of service that defined her reign, putting the job before her family.
In the royal and upper-class tradition, Charles was raised by nannies, and by all accounts his parents were devoted and loving, but distant. “Elizabeth and Philip were simply not demonstrative parents,” notes royal journalist Robert Jobson.
It was Princess Diana who started to change things, showering her boys with affection while also trying to keep them grounded. “She would just engulf you and squeeze you as tight as possible,” Prince Harry recalled in an interview with HBO. “She was very jolly … but she always understood that there was a real life outside of the palace walls,” Prince William added.
But Diana couldn’t protect her sons from the relentless media intrusion that blighted their childhood and her marriage. Prince William recalls the family “being chased by 30 guys on motorbikes who block your path, who spit at you, who shout at you, and who react really badly to get a reaction from you, and make a woman cry in public to get the photographs … I sadly remember most of the time my mother cried about anything that was to do with the press intrusion.”
Prince Harry has also talked at length about being haunted by paparazzi flashbulbs around every corner, incidences he blames for his mother’s tragic death.
The 21st century world of smartphones, social media and online trolling is providing a whole new set of challenges for Britain’s monarchy, and especially for the Wales family. It’s no longer just the paparazzi intruding, phone cameras in the hands of the general public are pointed at the royals everywhere they go and wild, illinformed, unregulated commentary swirls around the internet, trolls hiding behind pseudonyms as they throw bile into a melting pot of meanness.
While Princess Catherine is not besieged by paparazzi in the same way Diana was, she is demonised by a tiny but vocal group of online trolls whose comments then make their way into mainstream media. When Prince Louis played up, pulling faces and putting his hand over his mother’s mouth in the audience at the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Catherine was branded a “bad mother who couldn’t control her kids” and the Wales brood dubbed “brats”. “Royal children don’t behave like this,” tutted Twitter trolls.
Aside from the utter ridiculousness of such judgements, let’s not forget a four-year-old Prince Charles yawning on the balcony at his mother’s coronation and then playing with her crown in the palace afterwards. Or Prince Harry rudely sticking out his tongue at royal photographers. Children will be children!
Princess Catherine has brushed off such criticisms, kept her head down and concentrated on her family and her work. In fact, she seems to have followed in Diana’s footsteps in her hands-on parenting style and is determined to give her kids as normal a childhood as possible and one that also reflects her own passions – sport, outdoor life, the arts.
From early on she controlled the required photo shoots with her children, taking family snaps herself and releasing them to the media so her kids felt comfortable and less like animals stared at in a royal zoo. And when we do see the children outside formal royal events, they are joining their mother at engagements connected with her work – playing in her woodland-inspired garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, for example, or more recently taking part in a volunteer day with the Scouts.
“I think William and Catherine are much more hands-on as parents than even William’s parents were, and they have broken the traditional mould,” says royal biographer Penny Junor. “And I think their children are living much more normal lives.
“This is partly generational, I suspect, but also partly because Kate grew up in a middle-class family with very hands-on parents herself. And those parents are now very engaged grandparents, frequently taking the children out of the royal circus completely. Diana [however] was an aristocrat who grew up with very hands-on nannies and did the same with her children.”
Last September the Wales children enrolled at Lambrook School near Windsor with all three siblings at the same school. In class they are not known as Prince and Princess but simply George Wales, Charlotte Wales and Louis Wales. And while it’s impossible to know, the Wales family looks centred and well, yes, normal!
“I think parenthood has enhanced both of their lives immeasurably,” royal biographer Katie Nicholl tells me. “You can see from the way they are with their children that they love being parents and that they are very involved with their children’s lives.
“Kate clearly revels in motherhood. She has found her stride in life and the most important thing to her is being a good mother. A friend of hers once told me that being a mother makes her happier than anything else, and I think that’s very true.”
And while her family blossoms, Princess Catherine’s own profile is burgeoning as she develops her brand in new and interesting directions. The Palace is calling the Princess’s endeavours in early years’ learning, “her life’s work”.
For the past decade she has gathered research, worked with experts and convened best-practice advisory groups looking into how experiences in early childhood are often the root cause of issues like addiction, family breakdown, poor mental health, suicide and homelessness.
It is those five years that shape the brain, so positive physical, emotional and learning development is crucial, she says. Catherine’s ethos is simple but powerful and speaks volumes about her own parenting style.
“By building a supportive, nurturing world around children and those caring for them, we can make a huge difference to generations to come,” she says. “Because fundamentally healthy, happy children shape a healthy, happy future.”
One of those advising the Princess right from the start has been Professor Peter Fonagy, the Chief Executive of London’s Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. Peter first met Catherine just after Prince George was born when she visited the Anna Freud school, which helps troubled children tackle issues and find their way back into the education system.
“Our children usually have quite severe mental health problems. Quite a lot are on the spectrum mainly with behavioural problems. These are not kids that are easy to engage with, but the Princess was absolutely superb. She has a very special way with children. She was a bit of a child’s equivalent of a horse whisperer.
“She had a way of talking to them that engaged them. If she hadn’t done what she has done, I am sure she would be some kind of child clinician. She’s full of ideas and has a very keen understanding of what helps children in the early years. And she’s a smart woman.”
Peter notes that the Princess is also clearly informed by her own experiences as a mother. “She’s incredibly interested in the development of her own children and is massively committed to spending time with George, Charlotte and Louis and giving them attention, notwithstanding all the other things she does. Her kids take priority, that’s very clear, and I think they know it.
“I think a lot of what she has brought to the royal family is a very different way of valuing children and the family. I think the fact that she doesn’t come from the nobility is probably a significant advantage.”
William and Catherine surprised everyone when they brought George, Charlotte and Louis along to volunteer in a Scouts initiative for The Big Help Out day following the Coronation. The three royal kids pitched in to paint and renovate a Scouts hut, while later they toasted marshmallows around a camp fire and had a go at archery. They were clearly having a ball.
The Princess of Wales is joint president of the Scout Association and very active with the organisation, which she feels can transform young lives. Matt Hyde, the Chief Executive of the Scouts, says that in recent years she has helped to attract a rush of new young people joining the Scouts.
“She likes being around a camp fire, she’s not afraid to get involved in activities, and I think she’s a fantastic role model for girls and young women.”
In June last year Catherine moved her work to the next level, launching The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood. The aim is to drive action on the impact of the early years and transform society for the future. It’s a big dream but Dr Trudi Seneviratne, Registrar at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a member of the Princess’ Advisory Group on Early Childhood, says Catherine’s work in this area is utterly transformative.
“For her to recognise that getting it right in the early years really does lay down the foundations for our mental health for the rest of our lives is fantastic thinking. This is not just a generational thing for her; this is getting it right for future generations of children and people.
“It’s really quite profound that she’s hooked on to this particular area of development. It’s huge and something that the whole world needs to grab.”
In years to come Catherine will be Queen consort, and I wonder what sort of Queen Dr Trudi thinks she will make. “I think a very much more approachable one,” she says. “She’s a very human human being with a lot of humility, a lot of kindness, a lot of sweetness and an interest in other people that’s genuine; it’s not coming from ‘that’s my job’ to be interested in other people. She’s just genuine.”
As we go to press, the Wales family is back parading through London in the Trooping the Colour King’s birthday pageant. For the traditional Palace balcony line-up at Trooping there was no Harry and Meghan, nor were the Yorks in evidence.
The message was clear; the future of the monarchy is all about The Prince and Princess of Wales and their three children. And while it could be a daunting prospect, the family looks incredibly united.
“The most important thing to William and Kate is allowing George and his siblings a wonderfully grounded and supportive childhood,” says Katie Nicholl. And even though their childhood can’t be ‘normal’, it does look happy.