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Historical Notes: The ideal education for kings and queens

IN THE 16th century edu-cation was regarded as extremely important and was illuminated by exciting theories of education which had come originally from Renaissance Italy. This view concentrated on balance and breadth: balance between physical development (dancing, archery, hunting etc) and intellectual and moral education. A well-rounded personality was the aim.

Following this set of principles Queen Elizabeth I was taught to speak Latin, Greek, Italian and French and was familiar with the literature of each of those languages. This literature provided not only intellectual enrichment but also moral principles. Elizabeth I had the best tutors available, including Roger Ascham, who was not only a university teacher and scholar but also wrote books about education which became known throughout Europe.

By contrast Elizabeth II had been in the hands of completely unqualified nannies until Marion Crawford was taken on when she was six. Crawfie then became almost entirely responsible for Elizabeth's education and training. She was a two-year trained teacher who might have been just adequate for Elizabeth's "primary" education but as a non-specialist, non-graduate should not have been entrusted with her secondary curriculum. There was some specialist instruction in languages and constitutional history, but Crawfie largely had a free hand. There is a distinct impression that her parents did not take her education seriously.

Crawfie herself, in an account she wrote - much to the disgust of the royal family - soon after her retirement, was surprised that the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth "interfered so little". The result was that the future Queen Elizabeth II grew up to be more interested in dogs and horses than in books and ideas. Her know-ledge, according to Crawfie, was "wide rather than deep", and it has been suggested that she is still uneasy in the company of "intellectuals."

Why should there be such a contrast? By the 20th century there was no theory of education used to guide royal practice: her parents were more concerned their children should be happy rather than well educated. Concern for happiness was commendable but there was really no need for one to exclude the other.

It might be suggested that education is now less important for future kings and queens because constitutional monarchs have no real power. But one of the problems for modern kings and queens is precisely to understand the limits of their prerogative. Queen Victoria frequently exceeded her powers; her great-grandson, Edward VIII, misunderstood his position to such an extent that he was encouraged to abdicate. The present Queen has not abused her prerogative but has shown herself to lack an understanding of the delicacy of her position so that she sometimes appears over-concerned about her personal finances. The heir to the throne does not seem to know where to draw the line between controversial issues he can pronounce on and political issues such as education where he would be well advised to keep his views out of the public arena.

One of the dangers we identified in the upbringing of future monarchs over the centuries was the result of their formative years being spent in an atmosphere of exaggerated respect, deference, even reverence. The risk is that they are encouraged to believe they really are superior and above the rules of normal behaviour, often above the law.

If the monarchy is to survive it must become part of a truly democratic, open society. For the royal family to identify with an aristocratic and monied minority rather than with the majority of the population may be unwise. This applies not only to being educated at the most exclusive school in the country, but also participating in upper- class pastimes such as shooting and hunting which are regarded as undesirable by many "ordinary" people.

Peter Gordon and Denis Lawton are the authors of `Royal Education: past, present and future' (Frank Cass & Co, pounds 25)