Flawed Family: This week the Prince of Wales disclosed still powerful resentments against his mother and father. But they also suffered in their early years. Fiammetta Rocco delves into the royal childhoods that went wrong
Wednesday 19 October 1994
What is most striking about the extracts from Jonathan Dimbleby's new authorised biography is the extent to which they portray this middle-aged man as an emotionally stunted little boy. The heir to the throne is bogged down by unresolved resentments left over from early boyhood.
It is abundantly clear that Prince Charles did not feel the affect of a loving father and mother, and that he considers his parents, in the words of the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, to have been not 'good enough'.
Dimbleby, with Prince Charles's approval, accuses the Queen of being physically and emotionally distant. But his deepest anger is reserved for the Duke of Edinburgh, who is described as 'harsh', 'hectoring' and deeply irked by his son's solemn and over-sensitive nature.
Prince Charles blames his father for sending him to Gordonstoun, the Scottish public school, where he was beaten up, bullied and abused, and he accuses Prince Philip of forcing him into marriage with a woman he scarcely knew and never loved.
Whatever his stated motives, these public accusations are Prince Charles's revenge. And they force us to ask what kind of mother and father he did have. What sort of parenting did they provide and what were they, in turn, taught by their own parents?
Prince Philip's childhood was as sad and lonely as that of his son, if not more so. He was born in Greece, but his family was soon sent into exile, which it spent moving around Europe, living in borrowed houses and hand-me-down clothes.
By the time he was 10 years old, Philip's parents had separated. His mother suffered a traumatic menopause, and withdrew into a religious order. His father became a gambling addict, and moved to Monte Carlo. 'When he needed a father,' his old friend and private secretary, Michael Parker, says, 'there just wasn't anybody there.'
Prince Philip's four sisters, all far older than he, married Germans, one of whom was an SS colonel on Himmler's personal staff. None of them was invited to the Royal Wedding in 1947. The young prince was shunted between his father's German family and the English relations of his mother, who was Lord Mountbatten's sister. He was fed, clothed and educated, but emotionally he was neglected.
In 1937, when he was barely 16, his favourite sister, Cecile, her husband and two children were killed in an aeroplane crash. Six months later, his guardian, Lord Mountbatten's elder brother, the Marquess of Milford Haven, died.
Philip was sent to a series of schools, in Britain, in Salem in Germany (where the Hitler Youth virtually took charge of the school), and back to Scotland to Gordonstoun. In the five years he was there, no one ever came to visit him.
On every occasion, Philip was left to fend for himself. One contemporary remembers organising a whip-round for the loan of collar studs and cufflinks so that Philip would be properly dressed at the wedding of his cousin, Marina, to the Duke of Kent.
Whatever pain and loneliness he felt was carefully hidden. Philip taught himself to excel at sports, and he developed an iron social carapace as his defence against the world.
There were few, if any women to confide in at Gordonstoun, still fewer later on. His was a generation preparing for war. Philip joined the Royal Navy, which proved to be the making of him, and like many of his generation he served in the Second World War.
By the time he married, at the age of 26 - younger than his youngest child is today - he had lost nearly all the landmarks that tie us to childhood.
His father was dead, his mother wore a nun's habit. He'd lost his birthright, his home, name, nationality and church. Even his birthday - fixed first in the Julian calendar of his birth and then in the Gregorian - was no longer the same.
Marriage to the young Princess Elizabeth gave Philip the first real stability he'd ever had. But the parenting skills that Philip brought to the marriage were sparse in the extreme. And his ability to communicate affection was even more lacking.
And what of the Queen? Her early life was relatively normal by the upper-class standards of Britain at the time. But everything changed when she was 10. Her uncle abdicated, her father became king, and her mother devoted the rest of her life to a self-righteous defence of a dutiful, if unhappy, monarch.
The young Princess Elizabeth lived an extraordinarily sheltered life, rarely venturing away from the company of her parents and younger sister. She was moulded, shaped and educated for her future role. But the process also made her curiously passive and detached. One former private secretary says, 'He (Philip) gets very irritated with her passiveness . . . She's much better at knowing when it's right to say no, than at taking the initiative and saying yes. So he'll say, 'Come on, Lillibet. Come on. Just do it.' '
When she married, she found her role as future monarch put her in a difficult position. Her natural passiveness may have contributed to an early decision to allow Philip to be the head of the family. Thus it was that he took charge of family discipline, and was the most important voice in family decisions. Although the Queen very much wanted Charles to go to Eton, Philip's preference for Gordonstoun prevailed.
The early years of their marriage were by far the most free. And yet, the then Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh would leave their children in the care of nannies and grandparents for months on end. The Queen was away for five months, visiting her husband in Malta, in the winter of 1949. Charles was 13 months old when she left, and about to learn to walk. There was a similar absence two years later.
Even at home she was always very formal. A former private secretary recalls a game of rounders when he was staying at Balmoral. 'If the Queen missed the ball, she would walk after it. She'd never run. You don't run if you're the Queen.'
After she acceded to the throne, the calls on the Queen's time were even more acute. Charles was not yet five. As he grew older, his relationship with his mother became ever more formal. 'It's not that she was distant or even cold,' explains her former private secretary. 'But she was very detached. And she believed Philip was in charge. She would never have interfered with his authority. Even if he was being very tough on Charles.'
And what of the marriage in which Charles was raised? How close and loving were his parents? Did they talk openly of their problems? Two years ago, I interviewed Prince Philip in the library by his study at Buckingham Palace.
One of the things that struck me most was his capacity for aggression.
Sometimes he would become dismissive or angry. But he would also express his aggression in quite a silent and passive way.
I had been asked to send in my questions in writing. Many were struck off the list. There was to be no discussion of the Queen. Nothing about the Prince or Princess of Wales. When I came to ask him his views on the ordination of women, a question he had approved, he remained completely silent and merely stared at me. Not knowing if he was considering an answer, or if perhaps he hadn't heard, I repeated the question. Again, silence.
Was he aggressive in the same way with his own family? How would a confused and hypersensitive young boy like Charles have coped with such behaviour?
Prince Charles's attitudes towards love and marriage are the product of his own upbringing. Families move in cycles, as adults come to reflect how they were treated as children. But it is hard to change, even when you want to.
And it is always slow.
Before we rush to judge Prince Charles as a parent and a husband, we should acknowledge the emotional extremities in which he was raised, by people who had lived lives that few of us would wish to live.
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